2019 in Books

2019 in Books

This has shaped up to be another excellent year in reading. For the most part I kept going with themes that occupied me last year. The history of science is a prominent one. As for primary sources, the only book I completed was a short one, Christiaan Huygens’s Treatise on Light, where he analyzes light as a series of waves. Andrea Wulf’s popular biography of Alexander Humboldt technically falls within the history of science, though the book reads more like a hagiography. Much better—and one of my favorite books of the year—was Thomas Kuhn’s book on the Copernican Revolution. Lawrence Principe’s series of lectures on the history of science rounded out this category for me.

Next year, I hope to finally get to Lavoisier’s book on chemistry, Lyell’s book on geography, and Faraday’s book on electricity and magnetism. We shall see how I do.

As for philosophy, I decided to dip into existentialism. This began with Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful popular work on the subject—which was so charming, in fact, that I think it made existentialism seem a little bit more interesting than it really is. Kierkegaard’s Either/Or was the first serious philosophy book on the list; I found it brilliant, if uneven and ultimately disagreeable. Then there came Sartre’s tome, Being and Nothingness, which was ultimately even less satisfying than Kierkegaard’s book, even if it gives the reader a lot to chew over. Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, if not precisely existentialist, still failed to make much of an impression on me.  La Rouchefoucauld’s Maximes, Baltasar’s Arte de la prudencia, and Pascal’s Pensées had much more in the way of philosophic interest and life advice than these existentialists. 

My travels dictated some of my reading this year. In preparation for a trip to Naples, I read Pliny the Younger’s letters, which include his description of the eruption of Vesuvius; before going to Istanbul, I listened to a history of Byzantium by Kenneth Harl; and in order to ready myself for Normandy, I read a book about the D-Day landings. Yet of all this travel reading, the best was Mary Beard’s book on the Parthenon, which I read a bit too late for my 2018 trip to Athens.

This year, I had a vague idea that I would finally read some books about subjects that fascinated me as a child. This directed me to Stephen Brusette’s book on dinosaurs—badly written but informative—and Bob Brier’s lectures on Ancient Egypt—both informative and extremely entertaining. In this same spirit, I read the Very Short Introduction on Human Evolution, written by Bernard Wood, a former professor of mine. I combined this reading with trips to my favorite childhood museums, the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I marvelled once again over the Tyrannosaurus fossils and the mummies. 

As usual, I tried to read about America for my summer back in the United States. This led me to some really superb books. The first was Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, a man with a story worthy of a musical, play, film, or anything else really. David McCullough’s biography of John Adams was even more enjoyable—the best book of the year, if measured in pure reading pleasure (and the television series was great, too)—while I found Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson quite remarkably bad. Reading about America also means reading about our wars. This led me to McCullough’s short book on the first year of the Revolutionary War, and Ken Burns’s classic documentary on the Civil War (not a book, but book-length).

This year I got around to a few works of fiction that had long been on my list: The Call of the Wild, The Jungle Book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Lord of the Flies… I probably enjoyed them in that order. Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls was much funnier than I thought it would be, given the title, and Balzac’s Père Goriot was likewise more bleakly depressing. But the two outstanding works of fiction, for me, were Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, both of which I greatly loved. I should also mention Benito Pérez Galdós’s wonderful novel, Fortunata y Jacinta, which was one of my major reading challenges of the year—over 1,000 pages of literary Spanish.

A new discovery this year were the lecture series by the Great Courses. I have already mentioned a few of them: Principe’s on the history of science, Harl’s on Byzantium, Brier’s on Ancient Egypt. To this, I must add Edwin Barnhart’s excellent lecture series on the peoples of North and of Central America. The very best, however, may be Robert Greenberg’s introduction to the history of Western music, which was so good it convinced me to start going to the opera. In general these Great Courses fill a perfect niche in my reading, providing in-depth but painless introductions to topics that have long interested me, and allowing me to learn during the walks on my commute. 

But the dominating presence in my reading this year has been William Shakespeare. I read, watched, or listened to fifteen of his plays, and completed Harold Bloom’s enormous guide to the works of the Bard. I may not be convinced that Shakespeare invented humanity, but I am convinced more than ever that he is one of my favorite writers. Now that Shakespeare is done (or nearly done), I will hopefully return to be goal of reading through Plato’s works. Then I’ll have to figure out something else to do with my time.

A partially failed effort was to get more into mathematics, as a complement to my interest in the history of science. I did manage to speed my way through Morris Kline’s calculus textbook—an accomplishment I am rather proud of, even if it probably didn’t do me much good—as well as a short book on performing mental calculations (I forgot most of that already, too). I had hoped to read Thomas Heath’s Manual of Greek Mathematics, as well as some classic Greek mathematicians, but I only managed a hundred pages of the former and a small book by Nichomachus. I hope to read the rest next year.

Despite all these weighty-sounding books, two books this year represent bigger shifts in my actual day-to-day life. Peter Sagal’s book on running was part of my transition from total indolence to regularly exercising, a process that culminated in my running the Madrid half-marathon back in April. I hope to do it again this coming year. I also read a book about chess, as my amateurish interest in the game grew. I am still a very bad chess player; but the fact that I play at all is a big shift from last year, when I professed to scorn all games. Though not really a practical book, David Graeber’s book on bullshit jobs was my most cathartic read for the year, since it seemed to ratify many of my working experiences.

The only other thing worth mentioning is my attempt to turn my book reviews in a podcast. I did this for about twenty books, and then decided that it was a little silly, and stopped. Now my podcast is about life in Spain, which may be just as silly.

I will end this review on a sad note. As you may know, Ted Schmeckpeper died this year. He was one of my favorite people on Goodreads, not so much for his reviews as for his general presence. He helped to make Goodreads into a real community. Ted was also personally kind. Not only did he mail me a book from his own library, but Ted read an early draft of my novel and gave me detailed feedback. He had a rich and full life, as you can tell from his obituary. I miss him.

Letters from Spain #10: A Very Spanish Christmas

Letters from Spain #10: A Very Spanish Christmas

Here is the next installment of my podcast about life in Spain. This one, about Christmas, is the final one for 2019. I hope you enjoy it!


For the transcript, see below:


It’s the most wonderful time of year here in Spain: Christmas. And the Spanish love Christmas, just as much as we Americans do. In fact, as I mentioned in another podcast, since there aren’t any major holidays in November, the Christmas season in Spain starts very early. Now we are in full Christmas swing, as can be seen by taking a short walk through any Spanish city. On the first of December the lights, decorations, and trees go up.

Now, Spain does not have such a strong tradition of festive house decoration as we have in the United States. This is largely because, as I’ve said before, the private houses in Spain are not open to the street, but instead normally have tall walls wrapping around the property (so there’s not much to decorate). But the Spanish do love their Christmas lights. People, old and young, flock to the center of Madrid to enjoy the street decorations. It gets so crowded in the city center that you can hardly walk. This year there is a new star attraction: a massive illuminated globe that stands at the end of Gran Vía. Once in a while the ball plays Christmas songs on big speakers, and all the Spaniards within eyesight pull out their phones to record the bright singing ball. Yeah, it’s charming.

A Christmas tradition that may be a bit surprising for Americans is the Christmas Lottery, called El Gordo (the fat one). Everyone buys a ticket, and you can buy them everywhere. In my case, I bought a ticket through the school where I work, and this is fairly common for employees. You can also buy tickets at cafés or restaurants or other types of shops, or at specific lottery stands. There is one particular shop near the Puerta de Sol, right in the center of Madrid, which has somehow become famous for being especially lucky. Thus, every year people line up for hours in order to buy a lottery ticket there (a ticket that is no different from a lottery ticket bought anyywhere else).

A big part of the lottery tradition are the commercials. They have quite a good marketing team, and every year there’s a new concept for the lottery commercial. Last year, for example, it was kind of a spoof on Groundhog Day, with a guy winning the lottery every day over and over until he got sick of it, and then somehow becoming a better person. This year, it’s a bit more sentimental, and it’s about how lottery tickets bring people together. Of course it is ridiculous to connect the idea of a lottery ticket with generosity and family, but the commercials somehow accomplish this paradox. In any case, if I win you can be sure the production values of this podcast will be going up.

Well, Spain has more wholesome Christmas traditions, too. A big part of the Christmas season is the food. There are many types of seasonal sweets. Most famous, perhaps, is turrón, which is like marzipan (which the Spanish also eat) but made with added honey. It comes in many different forms, from a barely solid paste to toothbreakingly hard bars, but in general it’s very very sweet. There are also polvorones, which are balls made with flour and sugar. They have very little water or fat in them, which makes them sort of dry and dusty to eat. (Polvo is Spanish for “powder.”)

My favorite is a type of sweet cake called Roscón de Reyes. This is a type of sweet bread that is delicious when you dip it in coffee. It reminds me a lot of something my dad makes around Christmas, which he calls Swedish Cardamom Coffee Braid. Traditionally, a small toy is baked into the cake, and if you get this piece it’s considered good luck.

Possibly the biggest difference between Spanish and American Christmas is the celebration of the Three Wise Men. In Spanish, they are called the tres reyes magos, which translated to something like the three magic kings, or perhaps the three magi kings. In Spain the day of the magic kings (January 6, which we call Epiphany in English) is almost as important as Christmas itself. And the magic kings also deliver presents! So Christmas season in Spain is long indeed, since the holidays extends from before Christmas all the way to the sixth of January, and the children get presents twice. I should also mention the Cabalgata de los Reyes, a massive parade held on January 5th, with giant floats and people dressed up as the wise kings themselves. Unfortunately for me, I’ve never seen it. Normally I’m home for Christmas break. 

Connected with the importance of the Three Wise Men is the popularity of Nativity Scenes. In Spanish these are called belén, which is the translation of Bethlehem. Nativity figurines are sold everywhere, and it’s very common for Spaniards to have little nativity scenes in their houses. In Spain there is a special twist to their nativity scenes, which comes from Catalonia. This is to include a little person defecating in the corner of the scene, called the Caganer (which is Catalan for “the pooper”). The tradition of nativity scenes is just another example of how Spain can be intensely Catholic in its culture, while at the same time divorcing Catholicism from actual religiosity. There are many people who would call themselves atheists who still have nativity scenes in their houses.

The Spanish also like to perform nativity plays, or Christmas pageants. And this brings me to something that is a source of controversy every Christmas season. As you may know, one of the three wise men, Balthasar, is traditionally portrayed as being black. As a result, every year, all around Spain, a white Spanish person—sometimes a celebritiy—will dress up in blackface to play the role of Balthasar (noy only in schools, but also during the big parade). This inevitably makes any visiting Americans extremely uncomfortable, since blackface is a deeply racist symbol in the United States. Spaniards typically react with puzzlement when told by Americans that the practice is racist, and that is normally where the matter ends.

I have never personally seen a nativity play, nor have I seen any Spanish person wearing blackface. I’m sure I would find it upsetting. But, to be honest, this is an area where I hesitate to venture an opinion. Blackface is undeniably racist in an American context, since it is connected with the tradition of minstrel shows, which were based on explicit mockery of black people and black culture. All the same, Spain does not have this history, with all its baggage, and so applying our American sensibilities to a Spanish context is probably not valid. A symbol has no inherent meaning, after all, but is given a meaning by its culture. As a comparison, consider the costumes that Spanish people wear during their Easter processions, which look to Americans like the Klu Klux Klan outfits, but which of course are completely different. 

Of course, you could make a strong argument that dressing up as someone from a different race is inherently racist. But considering the different cultural contexts, my inclination is to think that this is just something Spanish people need to work out among themselves, without Americans telling them what is right or wrong. Judging from the petitions on change.org to have a Balthasar played by a black person, the country is slowly moving in the right direction. 

Well, let’s leave these troubled waters and move on to New Year’s Eve. For the most part this is celebrated just like it is everywhere: with parties, champaign, and fireworks. But in Spain they have a special tradition. As they count down from 12 to 0, they try to eat one grape every second. That’s twelve grapes total. It’s not easy—I’ve tried. The idea is that it’s supposed to bring you good luck. (My girlfriend doesn’t like grapes, so she eats little pieces of chocolate.)

There are just a couple more differences I shall mention between the Christmas season in Spain and in the United States. I forgot to mention that, since most Spanish homes don’t have fireplaces, they hang their stockings somewhere else. Another is that, since Spain does not have big forests, virtually everyone in the country uses plastic trees. Probably this is a lot better for the environment, since they don’t need to cut down millions of trees every year, like we do in the United States. But I have to admit a real Christmas tree has a lot more romance (besides having a better smell). You are also pretty unlikely to get a beautiful snowy Christmas anywhere in Spain, unless you live up on the mountains.

As for me, I’ll be heading home. Christmas is a time to spend with family and old friends. It is also not a time for making podcasts, so this will be my last episode of 2019. It has been a good run. In a week I will be sitting in my house, wrapped in a blanket, and eating some of my mom’s delicious cooking. But I’ll be sure to bring some Spanish turrón home, too. 

Happy holidays!

Images of Extremadura: Trujillo, Cáceres, and Monfragüe

Images of Extremadura: Trujillo, Cáceres, and Monfragüe

Even though Halloween is not nearly as popular in Spain as it is in my own country, it is still a time of celebration. For the day after Halloween, November 1st, is All Saints’ Day. and this means that we have a long weekend. I took the opportunity to visit one of the lesser-known regions of Spain: Extremadura. This is the area that lies to the Southwest of Madrid. Known for its relative poverty (the area is mostly agricultural, with hardly any industry), Extremadura nevertheless produces some of the country’s finest cured meats. Its cuisine is delightful.

Our first stop was the town of Trujillo. This is a small town (with less than 10,000 inhabitants) famous for being both beautiful and historically significant. The town owes its beauty partly to its location. Situated atop a granite knoll, the town has a commanding view of the surroundings, and the plentiful local rock has been quarried and used to give all the buildings a uniform appearance. The whole place is stone—from the pavement stones, to the restaurants, to the churches, to the city walls.

The town is also known for being the home of several Conquistadores (the Spaniards who conquered the New World), most notably Francisco Pizarro, the man who conquered the Incan Empire. Nowadays, of course, we are more likely to feel uneasy at this “accomplishment” of destroying a whole civilization. Even so, he is a historical character of immense importance. Pizarro’s statue stands in the main square, looking properly triumphant. (Hernan Cortés, the conquirer of the Aztecs, was from a small village not so far off. I wonder why Extremadura was a breeding-ground for these characters.)

The city walls.
The town cemetery. Many families were gathered inside, busy leaving flowers and cleaning the tombs of their ancestors. This is a common tradition on All Saints’ Day.
The main square, with the statue of Pizarro.
The church of Santa María la Mayor, which is both beautiful in itself and which has excellent views of the city and the surrounding countryside
The view from the church tower.

Later that day we went to Cáceres, the second-largest city in the whole province. Cáceres also has a beautifully-preserved historical center, making it a lovely place to walk around. But perhaps even more important, Cáceres has an excellent food scene. There are many superb restaurants in the city.

The Church of San Francisco Javier, in the Plaza of San Jorge. Nearby a musician was playing flamenco guitar and singingand he was excellent at both.
The view from the tower of the Church of San Francisco
The Arch of the Star, a gateway in the main square, made at an angle to allow carriages to pass through from the nearby street.

The next morning we left Cáceres early to go to the National Park of Monfragüe. This is a beautiful area of green hills around the valley of the Tajo River. Humans have been drawn to this area for a long time. In the center of the park, high up on a hill, are the remains of a medieval fortress. In a cave on that same hill, cave paintings have been found, dating from thousands of years ago.

Nowadays tourists mostly come for the birds. A massive rock formation, called the Salto del Gitano (or the “gypsy’s jump”), sits at the river’s edge, creating a persistent updraft. For whatever reason, predatory birds—most notably vultures, but eagles as well—enjoy coasting in this pillow of air. This has made the park one of the best places for bird-watching in all of Europe.

The Salto del Gitano
The old castle

Letters from Spain #9: The Spanish Landscape

Letters from Spain #9: The Spanish Landscape

Here is the next episode of my podcast about life in Spain:


For the transcript, see below:


We have had another long weekend here in Spain, and this one was for the Day of the Constitution. It commemorates the day in 1978 when the constitution was passed into law via a referendum. We also had Monday, December 9th, off. And this was basically just because the government guarantees a certain number of holidays per year, and organizes them to make as many long weekends as possible. I quite like this aspect of Spain.

Like so many people (judging from the traffic), I took the opportunity to leave Madrid and to go visit another part of Spain. And while I travelled, I was reminded, once again, of how amazingly diverse the Spanish landscape can be. So I thought I would take this opportunity to give you a kind of quick overview of Spain’s geography.

We can begin with Madrid and its surroundings. Now, I am sorry to say that I think this is one of the ugliest parts of Spain. Madrid is a kind of bureaucratic capital. The site of the city was chosen because it is in the middle of the country. There really isn’t any geographical reason a city should be here. The soil is dry and sandy and isn’t good for farming. There is no coast and no navigable river. (Madrid’s river, the Manzanares, is a kind of pathetic trickle most of the year.) Basically, if the city were to disappear completely, the thought of founding a city here would probably never even occur to anyone (well, unless you were a bureaucrat). 

I mostly like Madrid’s climate, if only because it rarely rains. The air is so dry that it hardly holds any heat. This is weird for a New Yorker, used to humidity. The temperature can vary quite a lot from morning to evening, and can even change drastically between sun and shade. All this is because Madrid is at a relatively high altitude—in fact, it is the highest altitude capital in Europe—and the air is sort of thin. Besides that, a whole mountain chain to the north shields the city from any weather making its way from the coast. As a result, it’s dry and pretty barren.

Here is what Ernest Hemingway had to say about Madrid:

“Madrid is a mountain city with a mountain climate. It has the high cloudless Spanish sky that makes the Italian sky seem sentimental and it has air that is actively pleasurable to breathe. The heat and the cold come and go quickly there.”

I can attest to the air being pleasurable to breathe. At the very least, I feel invigorated when I go running here.

If Madrid itself has an unremarkable landscape, it is fortunately close to some beautiful areas. Most notably there are the Guadarrama mountains to the north. For a New Yorker like me, seeing any mountains is an exciting experience. The highest point in all of New York state is Mount Marcy, which is 1,600 meters tall. And this is in the Adirondacks, pretty far from where I live. The tallest peak fairly close to my house is Mount Beacon, which is 491 meters tall. The whole city of Madrid is higher than that!

The highest peak in Madrid’s mountain range is called Peñalara, and it is about 2,400 meters above sea level. That’s just high enough so that you might experience altitude sickness, though the risk is very small. I’ve climbed to the top many times. It’s fantastic both in winter, when it’s covered in snow and skiers, and in summer, when the view is magnificent. This, by the way, is one of Spain’s 15 national parks. So far, I’ve only visited six of them.

Now that I am on the subject, though, let me tell you about two more national parks that I’ve visited recently. One is in the province of Extremadura. This province is now known as the poorest area of Spain. Ironically, however, it was one of the richest parts of the peninsula when the Romans were here, as we can see from the many Roman ruins. Nowadays, much of Extremadura is given over to raising the Iberian pigs which produce some of the country’s finest hams. The pigs are fed a diet of acorns from a little shrubby tree called the holm oak, which grows in abundance in Extremadura. 

Anyways, the national park is called Monfragüe. It occupies part of the Tagus river valley, where a huge rock formation called the Salto del Gitano created a strong updraft that birds really like. As a result, on any given day you can see dozens and dozens of the indigenous vultures hovering overhead. I highly recommend it.

Just this last weekend I saw another national park, the Picos de Europa (or the “peaks of Europe”). This is a mountain range in the north of Spain (it occupies the borders of three provinces), which gets its name for being the first bits of land that sailors from the New World could see on their return to Europe. Personally, I doubt this story is true, since the Picos de Europa aren’t especially close to the Atlantic, and they aren’t the tallest mountains on the peninsula. Regardless, they are absolutely gorgeous. You could easily imagine yourself in the Swiss alps.

I like these national parks partly because they are not the sorts of things people normally associate with Spain. The popular image of the country is of the beach, the hot sun, orange trees, palm trees, and olive trees. And of course you can find all that in Spain, too. Spain has great beaches, and great palm trees. But arguably Spain’s most important geographic characteristic is that it is so mountainous. In fact, Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe, after Switzerland, with an average elevation of about 600 meters (or 2,000 feet). Mountain chains crisscross the country. Besides the two mountain chains I already mentioned, there are the Pyrenees on the border with France, and the Sierra Nevada in Andalucia, which is the tallest range in the peninsula (there are many mountains well over 3,000 meters, or 10,000 feet tall!).

These mountains have played an extremely important role in Spain’s history, both for their effect on transport and the climate. To state the obvious, mountains can get in the way of travel, and this has contributed to the political and cultural disunity of Spain. Historically, it wasn’t so easy to get around. Even more important, the many changes in elevation—mountains, plateaus, and river valleys—can create lots of little micro-climates, and this has an important effect on the culture. I’ll illustrate this with a comparison.

Andalusia, which is in the south of the country, is fairly flat and low-lying, with lots of sun and good soil. As a consequence, farmers can gather lots of land together under one owner, and then farm it with a team of professional planters and pickers for added efficiency. Historically, this led to a great deal of inequality, since the wealthy would buy up the land, and the poor would be forced to work as itinerant laborers. By contrast, consider Galicia. This is the area on the northwestern tip of Spain, right above Portugal. Much like New York, Galicia is hilly rather than mountainous, and it receives quite a lot of rain from the Atlantic, so it’s very green. The soil is workable but not very high quality, and in any case the dense forest and the many hills make it difficult to unite lots of land under one owner. So the Galicians became subsistence farmers, with each family owning their own little plot of land. As you can imagine, these differences in farming strategies have shaped the cultures of these two regions.

I am going on and on, and yet I am afraid I am not doing justice to the Spanish landscape. So here is the historian, J.H. Elliott, on the country’s geography:

“A dry, barren, impoverished land: 10 percent of its soil bare rock; 35 percent poor and unproductive; 45 percent moderately fertile; 10 percent rich. A peninsula separated from the continent of Europe by the mountain barrier of the Pyrenees—isolated and remote. A country divided within itself, broken by a high central tableland that stretches from the Pyrenees to the southern coast. No natural centre, no easy routes. Fragmented, disparate, a complex of different races, languages, and civilizations—this was, and is, Spain.”

Well, for style I doubt I’m going to beat that. I do think that Elliott exaggerates the harshness of the Spanish climate and the isolation of the country’s geography. But he does capture the strangely disunited quality of the landscape. Whenever I drive through the country I am surprised at the sharp contrasts from one region to another. Just yesterday I drove from the snowy, green mountains of Asturias into the incredibly flat and empty plains of León. I am sure that the United States, being so much bigger, contains more variety. But I doubt that any part of America can present such stark contrasts in such a small span of space. In a single day, driving from one end of the peninsula to the other, you can see sandy desserts, arid plains, ice-tipped mountains, verdant river valleys, and lush forests. 

When speaking of beautiful Spanish landscapes, we also cannot forget the country’s islands. There are the Baleares in the Mediteranean, which are lovely. But even more interesting are the Canary Islands. This is an archipelago located in the Atlantic, somewhere off the coast of Morocco. The islands are volcanic, which makes them especially fascinating to visit. The tallest mountain in Spain, el Teide, is located on the largest island of the archipelago: Tenerife. I’m sure I’ve never seen anything taller than Teide. The mountain (which is really the volcano that formed the island) stretched up to 3,700 meters. That’s 12,000 feet! And of course the whole height of the volcano is very apparent, since it’s right next to the ocean. I remember being on the plane as we took off from the island, passing through the clouds on the way up, and then seeing Teide above me.

Naturally, Teide is a national park. The island of Lanzarote, which is the third-largest in the archipelago, also has a national park, called Timanfaya. This is the part of Lanzarote that was most recently formed by a volcanic eruption. As a result, there’s basically no vegetation at all. And the rocks are twisted into all sorts of nightmarish shapes. It’s both beautiful and hellish.

Well, I can’t hope to do justice to every one of Spain’s beautiful landscapes in the podcast. But if you take away one thing, I hope it is that Spain has more than just beaches and sun. The geography is fascinatingly diverse, and you can’t hope to understand the variety of Spain’s many regions without knowing something about its many different climates. The national parks are especially wonderful and are just as worth visiting as Spain’s many cultural treasures. Spain is a fortunate country.

Thank you

Images of the Galician Coast

Images of the Galician Coast

During our last Easter Vacation, my brother and I took a trip up to Galicia for a few days. I had been to Galicia many times before, but this time I wanted to do something different. My plan was to rent a car and see some of the less accessible parts of the province, away from the big cities.

Well, this went mostly to plan. The main source of anxiety was the car. I was totally inexperienced in car rentals, so I was caught off guard at the office when they told me that I would have to pay more on top of what I had already paid to reserve the car—a lot more. What many rental agencies do is bundle together their gasoline and their insurance policies. So, basically, if you do not want the insurance they charge you a huge “administrative fee” for filling up the car’s tank with gas, and this makes it cheaper to actually get the insurance. As a result, we paid over twice as much in the office as we had paid online to get the car.

Personally I think this practice should not be allowed, since it is transparently a way of squeezing money from customers. But, I must admit, by the end of the trip I was glad I had bought the insurance, since I managed to scratch the side of the car in an underground parking lot.

But getting a car had many positives. One of them was in allowing us to rent an Airbnb out in the middle of the countryside. It was unlike any place I had ever stayed in: a stone cottage where an old Belgian woman lived with her dogs and chickens. If you can find the listing, I highly recommend a stay. (The cottage is quite near the town of Xuño, in the province of Pontevedra.) The surrounding landscape is gorgeous, and the cottage is near many things worth visiting—as I hope to show.

Our little car and our Airbnb, with my brother in the background
The Airbnb had a great mirror

First we headed to the town of O Grove, on the recommendation of a friend. This is a popular destination for local tourism, and it is easy to see why. The town itself is quite pleasant, right on the coastline and filled with good restaurants. We stopped and had some of Galicia’s delicious seafood. (The bad part of driving is that I cannot have wine with lunch.) Across a bridge is the island of A Toxa, which is filled with resorts and hotels. It is worth visiting, however, if only for the hermitage, whose walls are covered in cockle shells.

A fisherman in O Grove
The Hermitage of A Toxa

Closer to our Airbnb was the Miradoiro da Curota, which it a lookout point on the top of one of the tallest hills in the area. Some have called this mirador the best view in Spain, if only because all of the region’s famous island national parks are visible from it. It is an extremely impressive sight. Personally I find the Galician landscape intoxicating, with its mixture of lush green, deep greys, and shimmering waters.

My brother pointing to something in the distance.

Next we went down towards the town of Xuño, to visit the local beach: As Furnas. This beach is famous for being the place where the writer Ramón Sampedro dove from the rocks and broke his neck, turning him into a paraplegic. Unhappy with his life of immobility, he tried for many years to be euthanized, taking his case all the way to the highest court in the land. In the end he lost the case, but he convinced his friends to give him cyanide.

This tragic story was turned into an iconic film—Mar Adentro, or The Sea Inside—by Alejandro Amenábar, with Javier Bardem playing Sampedro.

I was thrilled. You see, as usual I had hardly looked up anything before booking the trip, so virtually everything we saw was done on the spur of the moment. So it was a very fortunate coincidence to come across this beach: The Sea Inside was one of the first movies I watched in the hopes of improving my Spanish. Travelling in Spain is often like this. The country is so jam packed with treasures that you trip over them wherever you go.

This is where Ramón Sampedro jumped and became paralyzed. He misjudged the depth of the water; it is safe to jump at high tide.
A bust of Sampedro

Even if you do not care about the movie, the beach is worth visiting on its own merits. Skeletal granite formations jut into the water, creating fascinating patterns of pools and polished rock.

My brother looking out at the sea.

All of this was great. But the best was yet to come. After doing some searching on my phone, we drove north to the Castro of Baroña. To be honest I had little idea what to expect. It turned out to be one of the coolest things that I have seen in Galicia—or in all of Spain, for that matter.

Situated on a little peninsula, with roaring waves all around, is an ancient fort. Settlement of the land probably dates back centuries before the common era, and the fort was finally abandoned in the first century. This is what is called a “castro,” which loosely means a fortress. It was built by the (appropriately named) Castro Culture—a group of Celtic peoples living in the north. Though the Celtic language has disappeared from the Iberian Peninsula, its ruins (and some aspects of its culture) have remained.

The builders dug a little moat into the isthmus of land connecting the island to the mainland, and built two circular walls around the area. All that remains of the buildings inside the fortress are stone circles, the bases of former constructions. I imagine it would have been very difficult to attack such a place, since the only access is by sea (and there is no good place to land a boat) or across the narrow strip of land. But I doubt that the defenders could have stored enough food for a prolonged siege.

Not only are the ruins intriguing, but the site is beautiful in itself, like so much of the Galician coast.

For my money, the combination of the landscape, the excellent seafood, and the welcoming people makes this region perhaps my favorite in the entire country. And that is saying quite a lot.

Letters from Spain #8: Climate Change and Immigration

Letters from Spain #8: Climate Change and Immigration

Here is the eighth episode of my podcast about life in Spain. In this one, I talk about the UN Climate Conference that’s being held here in Madrid, as well as the process of working legally in Spain as an American.


For the transcript, see below.


Today I want to talk about two things that cause a lot of anxiety, climate change and immigration. (Though, they tend to cause different sorts of people anxiety.)

Well, we have a short week here in Madrid—thanks to the Day of the Constitution, on December 6th—but still quite an eventful one. As far as the news is concerned, the biggest event is the COP25: the 25th United Nations Climate Conference. It is being held in Madrid, in a place called IFEMA, which consists of a bunch of big empty glass buildings for holding big events. For example, this is where I had to go to register for the Madrid half marathon. They also have a special travelling exhibition about the tomb of Tutankhamun there now.

Brazil was originally supposed to host the event, but the election of Jair Bolsonaro—a version of Donald Trump—mooted that plan. Chile then offered to host the event; but political unrest in that country forced them to pass the torch to Spain. The highest profile guest at this climate talk will, no doubt, be Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist from Sweden. She hasn’t quite arrived in Madrid yet, since she had to come all the way from New York, and she chose to cross the Atlantic in a boat rather than a plane in order to reduce her carbon footprint. It took her 21 days to make the crossing (she was slowed down by adverse weather), and has just arrived hours ago in Lisbon. (I wrote this yesterday on December 3rd.) She was in New York to participate in the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, which was in September. So it seems like she’s following me around.

The main goal of this Madrid conference is to hammer out Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. Basically, this is an attempt to create a kind of global emissions market, wherein low-emissions countries will be able to sell their excess allowable emissions to other countries. I think it is a good idea. But I have to admit that, as the years go by, I get more and more depressed when it comes to climate change. Yesterday at the conference, Spain’s president, Pedro Sánchez, said: “Today, fortunately, only a handful of fanatics deny the evidence.” Unfortunately, one of those fanatics is in the White House, which has caused the United States—the second-biggest producer of greenhouse gases—to pull out of the agreement entirely. Meanwhile, most other countries have not been able to reduce their emissions sufficiently to stay within the goal (which is a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures). China, for example, which is the world’s biggest greenhouse gas contributor, is still increasing rather than decreasing its emissions.

I remember when global warming was considered to be something we had to solve for our grandchildren’s sake. But as the years have gone by, and governments have continued to sit on their hands, the problem has become increasingly acute—not a problem for future generations, but for us. Unfortunately, by their very nature, these huge international agreements take a lot of time. And even if the U.N. does pass sweeping resolutions, these laws must still be hammered out and enacted in all of these different member states. Democracy is an awfully slow form of government, while climate change keeps accelerating.

As far as Spain is concerned, I think the country is doing decently well. There is a robust public transport system. If you go up north, especially to Galicia, you can see dozens upon dozens of wind turbines, which supply a sizable proportion of the country’s power. And if you go south, it is not hard to find solar panels baking in the Meditteranean sun. Near Seville, from the highway, you can see the PS10 solar power plant—which uses hundreds of mirrors to focus light onto a central point elevated on a tower. It looks quite cool, and somehow reminds me of Sauron’s tower from Lord of the Rings. Last year, in 2018, renewable energy accounted for 40% of the energy produced in Spain. The comparable figure for the United States is 17%. To pick a more humble example, I was happy to find that the little vegetable bags in my supermarket are biodegradable.

In any case, while climate change is threatening and occupying the world, my little world has been occupied by issues of immigration—namely, my own immigration. For the fifth time, I had to go and renew my visa in order to stay in Spain. So I thought that I’d take a little opportunity to walk you through the process of legally working as a language assistant in Spain as an American.

You start off in America, obviously. Now first you need to secure a job as a language assistant. The most popular way to do that is through the Ministry of Education program, but there are several others in Spain. You apply online and, assuming that you’re accepted into the program, you will be emailed an official letter stating the details of your job. This letter can sometimes take a distressingly long time to arrive, and some years it takes longer than others; but once you have that letter you are ready to apply for your visa. To do this, you need to locate your nearest consulate. I am lucky to live near New York City, where there is one, but for many people the nearest Spanish consulate is hours away.

To apply for the visa, you need to gather several things. There are easy things like writing a check for the fee and filling out a form. And then you have the official letter with your job details. But then there are more difficult things. You need a doctor’s note saying that you’re in good health, and this means a visit to your doctor. You need proof of financial means, which you can do either with a bank statement or with a notarized statement from a parent. The most difficult thing is the background check. You need to get this from the FBI. And since the FBI itself takes a long time in doing background checks, probably you’re going to have to use a ‘channeler,’ which is a third-party company that speeds it up. To do this you’ll need to go get your fingerprints taken. Now, once you get your background check back (and let’s assume you have a clean record) you’re still not done. Now you need to get what’s called an apostille, which is a document certifying the background check for international use. To get this in a reasonable amount of time, you need to pay another channeling service.

Ok, so we gather all of these documents together. When I got my visa, all I had to do was to mail my documents in with my passport, and they would send my passport back with the relevant stamp in a few weeks. But that system worked a little too well for the Spanish government, so they decided to change it. Now you need to book an appointment and physically bring all your documents into the consulate office. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if there were appointments, but when my brother had to do it, all of the appointments were booked solid for months. (Lucky for him, they gave him an “emergency” slot.)

Well let’s say you go through all of these hoops and they give you back your visa in your passport. Hurray! But wait, you’re not done. This visa only lasts about three months. It’s really just to get you into the country and settled. Once you get in, you have to apply for your real identity card. And this, of course, is another long process. You need to make an appointment at a special police station (in Madrid it is in a place called Aluche) and then get a bunch of documents in order: the form, photocopies of your passport, new passport photos, your official job letter, and proof that you paid the fee. (Paying the fee is usually the most annoying part, since you need to do it in a bank, and the banks are not cooperative.) You show up on the appointed day at the appointed hour, wait a long time in a line, and then give your bundle of papers to a person behind a desk, who then scans the fingerprints of your two index fingers.

Oh, I also need to mention a document called an empadronamiento (a little hard to say). This is basically a registry of where you live. To get this, you need to make an appointment, fill out a form, and then go to the office on the appointed day with your rental contract and a recently paid bill (and copies, of course). You need to do this before the fingerprint appointment, so be careful!

If this goes well, you still have a little task to do, since it takes them about a month to print your identity card. So you need to take a little receipt and come back in 40 days to pick up the card. Now, something interesting happens if you, say, want to go back to America for Christmas break, but you don’t have your identity card yet (and this is fairly common). In that case you need another special piece of paper called the Autorización de Regreso. This allows you to exit and enter Spain without needing a visa for a period of ninety days. To get this, you need to get a whole bunch of other papers together, etc., etc., etc.

What I just described to you is what may be called an ideal process. It can, of course, go wrong in all sorts of interesting ways. I already mentioned that the appointments at the Spanish consulate in New York City fill up so fast that it can be impossible to get anything within three months. My brother would have been in a bad situation if they had not made a so-called “emergency” appointment for him, and they only did this because he has a government job. A slight error can also totally upset the process. When you pay the fee, for example, the person at the bank gives you back two receipts of payment: one for the government, and one for you to keep. They look absolutely the same except for some fine print on the bottom. Once, without either of us noticing, the man at the bank only gave me one of these back. So when I went to my appointment, the bureaucrat wouldn’t accept my application because I only had the receipt for me and not for the government. Nevermind that either receipt equally proves that I paid the fee, the fine print on the bottom is different. So I had to make a new appointment, go back a month later, and do it all again.

My worst experience was with the regreso document. In the past, the regreso was given out to anyone who showed up with the proper forms. All you really needed to say is that you had a flight soon, and it wouldn’t matter if you had an appointment. I thought this was very nice, since there are many situations when you might need to leave the country on short notice. But this system was too convenient for the Spanish government, so they changed it last year, requiring that everyone have an appointment. Nevermind that the appointments are not available within a short timeframe and are sometimes not available at all.

Well, suffice to say that I wasn’t aware of this rule change. So one summer I went to get my regreso before going back to America, and found to my horror that they wouldn’t give me it. This, despite being there, sitting in the desk with all of the requisite papers. The woman refused to accept them and I was sent packing. I ended up buying an entirely new flight. And the irony was that I wasn’t even asked for my regreso document upon getting back to Spain—something that very often happens. Indeed, I have found that it’s much easier for me to get into Spain than into my own country, since the Spanish are in general a lot less paranoid when it comes to foreigners.

So that’s my immigration story. After all this, I get a little green card that is valid for about six months. As a language assistant, you get a student visa for some reason, which is why you need to renew it every year. I am sure it could be much worse. I bet it is worse in my own country. But I do wonder what, if anything, all of this bureaucracy is really accomplishing. For example, with every application I need to include scans of my passport, which has all of my basic information. Then I need to put my basic information on a form. And all my basic information on the bank fee. And my information is also in my job letter. So, considering all the applications for various things, the Spanish government has dozens and dozens of documents with my basic information, all stored away in God knows where.

To me, it seems that this huge process only guarantees that people fill out the right forms and pay the right fees. I have a very hard time believing it keeps anybody safe. Think about it. If I was really up to no good, I would just enter Spain on a tourist visa, overstay it (which a lot of people do), and live off the grid. And think about how much all of this unnecessary bureaucracy is contributing to global warming? So here’s my proposal: open the borders, eliminate all of these petty and useless processes, and then put everyone to work building solar panels or something. I am sure the world would be a better place.

Thank you.