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:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-9-the-spanish-landscape/id1469809686?i=1000459409868

For the transcript, see below:


Hello.

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.

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-8-climate-change-and-immigration/id1469809686?i=1000458741282

For the transcript, see below.


Hello.

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.

NY Museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

NY Museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is part of a series on New York City museums. For the other posts, see below:


In a city full of famous art museums, the Metropolitan is undoubtedly the queen. The institution is a behemoth. With a collection containing millions of objects—objects which come from every corner of the world, from ancient times to the present day—the museum has nary a rival in the world for range. And the objects comprising this encyclopedic collection are, inevitably, of the finest quality that money can buy. By now I have seen enough of the great European museums to say confidently that the Met can compete with any of them.

The museum was conceived as a kind of sister institution to the American Museum of Natural History. It was an age when the rich and educated sought to “civilize” the less privileged. Both museums are located near Central Park, a place which itself was designed as a civilizing project—a kind of pastoral refuge from the ills of city life, where the people could learn to appreciate more refined recreational activities: Sunday strolls, picnics, birdwatching, and so on. The Museum of Natural History would bring the light of knowledge to the uneducated, while the Met would show the unsophisticated the value of high art.

The museum’s founders were embarking on a pathbreaking project. There were already plenty of examples of great European museums to learn from. But what would an American art museum be like? When the museum opened in 1872, its collection was modest. Indeed, many of the works it displayed were either prints or reproductions of famous European works. Yet this quickly changed. New York was emerging as the financial capital of the world. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan were among the city’s residents. Since Europe was still considered the cultural epicenter of the West, these newly-minted super-rich naturally spent their piles of gold in buying up as much European artwork as they could.

The Metropolitan benefited immensely from this confluence of money and ostentatious display. Not only did the museum itself have the budget to purchase high-quality works, but it also increased its collection from gifts and bequests. After all, donating beautiful art to a public museum is a good way to demonstrate wealth and civic-mindedness at once. We ought not to criticize, however. There are times when the vanities of the world manage to produce genuine treasures. And the Met is certainly such a treasure.

At present, the museum’s holdings are so vast and varied that no single person, however knowledgeable, could hope to do justice to it all. It would take a team of professional art historians working for years on end to complete even a basic catalogue of the museum’s works, much less an appreciation along aesthetic grounds. And I am no art historian. So in this post I hope only to give you a superficial tour through this enormous institution. (Much of the information and many of the images come from the Met’s website, which is quite well-made. The people at the museum have done the world a service by publishing high-quality public domain images of their collection.)

We begin at the entrance on Fifth Avenue. The museum is difficult to miss. The building stretches out along several city blocks. Fountains shoot and sprinkle outside, and the sidewalk is always thick with crowds. The building is neoclassical in form, its façade a kind of pale white decorated in a pseudo-Roman style. The steps leading up to the main entrance, lined with imposing double columns, are one of the most iconic spots in New York. There are always food stands parked right below these steps, and usually a street performer—a dancing saxophonist, perhaps—plays for the amusement of those sitting on the steps. 

We enter the building, and are faced with a choice: right or left. There are ticket stands on either side. To the left there is a graceful Greek statue of woman, and to the right a stiff Egyptian man seated on a throne. These statues are informative, since the respective galleries for these cultures are located in these directions. For the purpose of getting a ticket, the choice is immaterial: the lines on either side are normally about the same, and usually move pretty quickly.

Now, there was recently a significant change in the museum’s admissions policy. For the past few decades, visitors could pay any amount they liked. Just last year, however, the museum changed its recommended prices to mandatory payments—for everyone except residents of New York State, that is. (Lucky for me, I am still a resident.) Another change, by the way, was the switch from using metal clips to using stickers to identify visitors. I am sure that the Metropolitan has increased its budget by making these changes. But I admit I miss the old, pay-as-you-wish, metal clip Metropolitan. A man from China could pay a dollar, and leave with a nice little keepsake from his visit. I still have some of the old clips in my room. 

Anyways, let us now enter the museum proper. I like to begin with the Egyptian section, not just because it is near the entrance, but also because it represents the chronological beginning of the museum’s collection. Here we can ground ourselves in one of the world’s oldest civilizations before we examine anything else.

The Egyptian section is massive and labyrinthine. Unlike the other departments of the museum, the Egyptian department displays everything in its collection—almost 30,000 objects. To make room for all of this, the halls double around one another, making it sometimes confusing to navigate the collection. But it is a worthwhile use of one’s time to get lost in the art. If you proceed carefully through the department, you can take a very satisfying chronological journey: beginning near the entrance, in prehistoric Egypt, and ending up in the same spot, having gone through the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, and finishing in the Roman era. 

Now, I love this department, because it has everything. Walking through it, the visitor gets a very complete picture of life in this ancient civilization. Of course there are sarcophagi and mummies, along with amulets, jewelry, and ceramics. Among the most famous of the smaller pieces in the museum is William the Hippopotamus, a beautiful figurine made of faience, which is a ceramic type specific to Egypt. It has a radiant blue color that is delightful to look at.

The museum also has a wealth of larger statues, ranging from the size of a child to the size of a giant. For me, the most beautiful of these is a statue of the pharaoh Hatshepsut. As you may know, Hatshepsut was the only woman to officially become the pharaoh. This presented a challenge for Egyptian artists. The art of Ancient Egypt is distinguished for its astonishing conservatism, preserving the same stylistic features through centuries. A single glance is all we need to know that something is Egyptian. But portraying a woman required innovation, and the artists rose to the challenge. Rather than making her appear masculine, as they did in other works, in this seated statue Hatshepsut appears both feminine and even feline. There is a smooth grace and delicacy to the sculpture which is rare in the usually rigid forms of Egyptian art, and I find it enchanting.

Though not, perhaps, especially beautiful, some of the most illuminating artifacts on displays are sets of models. Made around 1900 BCE, the models were found in the 1930s in a tomb in the Memphite region of Egypt. They show us rare scenes of daily life in Egypt. We can see several boats travelling along the Nile, one of them transporting a mummy, another for hunting. There are also models of more cotidian scenes: a granary, a garden, a house. These models are wonderful little things, since it is as if they were made by the Egyptians for a museum exhibit about Egypt. It is difficult to identify with the people who sculpted enormous statues of god kings, but very easy to see oneself gardening.

The centerpiece of the collection is the Temple of Dendur. The Met actually has large sections of several temples in its collection, from different periods of Egypt’s history, but this is the only complete, free-standing temple in the museum. It is in the center of a large room, surrounded by a little water moat where visitors like to throw coins. Statues of crocodiles and lion-headed gods surround the space. The temple itself is of a fairly modest size, and is from the end of Egyptian civilization. It was built after the conquest of Egypt by the Romans, and commissioned by Augustus himself. While the temple is a lovely work of architecture, what most stuck in my memory were the many graffiti carved into the walls.

When you complete your circuit through the Egyptian section, you will be where you began, right by the entrance. From there, I like to go across the hall and then into the section on Ancient Greece. This part of the museum looks very different. Whereas the Egyptian section is twisting and jam-packed, the Greek section is open and clear. The visitor enters a large hall with a vaulted roof. Free-standing statues are scattered through the space, while friezes line the walls. For any lovers of classical art—with its flowing robes, idealized forms, and restrained emotion—there are dozens of works to admire. While I greatly enjoy the statues, I find myself even more interested in the friezes. Some of these come from Athenian tombs, such as a touching portrayal of a little girl cradling a dove.

The collection contains many excellent examples of art from Classical Athens—art that we readily identify as quintessentially Greek. Besides the statues and freizes, there are many examples of Greek vase art. But the collection also contains works that do not fit this description. Among these are the many sculptures from pre-Classical Greece, which to our eyes can seem more Egyptian than anything. The museum has an excellent example of one of these kouroi: A young man, standing with one foot extended forward. I like the work, since it is an interesting example of a midpoint between Egyptian stylization and Greek realism. The young man is manifestly unreal, and yet the musculature in his limbs and torso is well done. An even older work—from around 750 BCE—is a terracotta vase. Its decoration is very much unlike the red, white, and black images of gods and heroes we normally associate with Greece. Rather, it is covered in a thick pattern of geometrical shapes and tiny like stick-like figures. I quite like it.

The collection of Roman art is perhaps even better than that devoted to Greece. There are several excellent busts of Roman Emperors. I have a long, personal attachment to a bust of Marcus Aurelius in the collection, which to me is the perfect image of a philosopher—calm, wise, detached. I use it as my own symbol now. A much more amusing work is a statue of Trebonianus Gallus. It is a rare example in the Met of art gone wrong. Clearly, whoever made it was not a master. The whole figure is awkward, with a bulging stomach and a head that is manifestly too small. Maybe Rome was not doing so well in the year 250 CE, when it was made.

Statues, being made of metal or rock, naturally preserve very well. But painting is another story. Even though the Greeks had a developed tradition of painting, nothing has survived the ravages of time. That is not the case for Rome, from which we have many well-preserved wall paintings. The Met has an entire room, the bedroom of P. Fannius Synistor, which was buried in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. The art on the walls is really wonderful, showing several architectural and natural scenes. It shows us how the Romans gave a realistic impression of space without using the technique of perspective. Having seen my fair share of Roman wall frescoes and mosaic floors, I must say that they had wonderful taste in interior decoration.

As you can see from this example and the Egyptian temple, the Met is big on re-creating interiors. This is a theme throughout the whole institution. I think this is one of the greatest things that set the museum apart from its rivals. The visitor is allowed to walk into history.

Before moving on to the next department, I want to mention the wonderful collection of Etruscan art (from Italy before the Roman period) on the balcony above the Roman section. One of the most outstanding pieces in this section is a bronze chariot from around 550 BCE. Having a preserved is quite rare, so it is a treat to be able to see one—especially a chariot so exquisitely decorated.

The Greek and Roman section leads direction to the collection of art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Of course, one can tell at a glance that this grouping is a kind of mishmash of art from non-Western cultures, which in previous days was called “primitive.” In reality the arts of these three continents have nothing to do with each other; and, of course, the amount of geographical space supposedly represented in these galleries is incomparably more vast than that of Greco-Roman or Egyptian art. That being said, at least the Metropolitan has a fine collection of art from these parts of the world, which are too often ignored.

For my part, it is a great refreshment to go from the world of Greece and Rome to this gallery. Our culture has so internalized those classical forms that they charm us more for their “perfections” than for any surprises they contain. Thus it is a pleasure to sample some of the other great visual cultures from around the world, which really do contain surprises for Western eyes.

The grand hall of the collection (gallery 354) is one of the most spectacular in the museum. From the ceiling hangs an enormous collection of shields from Oceania, arranged into a kind of meta-shield formation. I am always reminded, incongruously, of a spaceship. Large sculptures fill the space below the shields. There are some slit gongs from the island of Vanuatu, which double as huge musical instruments and works of visual art. There are funerary sculptures from Papua New Guinea; called malaga carvings, they are beautiful and highly intricate wooden carvings meant to be used only temporarily to celebrate the dead, and then disposed of. (This certainly goes against the grain of Western thinking, wherein we want our art to be eternal.) The bis poles of the Asmata people, another culture in New Guinea, are used for a similar purpose, and are also beautifully carved and then disposed of.

The adjacent section on African art is equally captivating. During my last visit I was particularly attracted to a small wooden carving of a man, called a Power Figure, made by the Kongo peoples. Bent forward slightly, standing with arms akimbo, the statue has a real intensity when seen in person—the exaggerated form only magnified by the many steel nails emanating from the man’s body. More famous is the Benin ivory mask, a real masterpiece, made by the Edo people of Nigeria—one of the great pre-colonial states in sub-saharan Africa. The mask, which represents a powerful queen mother, is clearly the work of experts working within a vibrant tradition. The mask has an elegance and a graceful polish that make it very satisfying on the eye: each detail is finely crafted, and yet they all work together to make a perfect form.

During my last visit, I was especially interested in the section on pre-colonial American art, since I had just finished listening to an audio course on the peoples of North America. I was delighted to find beautiful examples of geometric pottery from the Ancestral Pueblo culture (fascinating to compare to the geometrical designs from pre-Classical Greece). Among the many sculptures on display, one of the most iconic is a ceramic baby from the Olmec culture, made around 1,000 BCE. It is a wonderful piece, surprisingly lifelike despite its stylized face. The folds of fat and the hand placed idly in the mouth serve to make this sculpture a far more realistic depiction of babyhood than the many portraits of the infant Jesus made over 2,000 years later in medieval Europe. 

Moving on in our rapid tour, we come next to the museum’s Department of Modern and Contemporary art. The very fact that the Met has this department is a testament to its uniqueness. I can think of no other museum in the world that has significant holdings of ancient and non-Western art as well as “modern” art. But the Met is devoted to a vision of total universality—the art world’s equivalent of the Museum of Natural History—and so has it all.

The collection as the Met is almost as impressive as that in the MoMA—and that is saying a lot. Though there are so many great works on display, I will restrict myself to mentioning my favorite painting, which is also perhaps the most famous painting in the whole collection: Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein.

It is an extraordinary portrait, arguably the greatest of the previous century. The painting is revolutionary. Gertrude Stein sits in a kind of abstract, unfinished space. She is not surrounded by her papers and books, but instead sits alone. While previous portraits in European art showed us the heroic and cultured male, handsome and lithe, Stein is hunched-over, short, and tick. Yet her body—mostly concealed under her heavy clothes—has a kind of elemental power on the canvass, even a monumental grandeur. But her face is what attracts the most attention. Rather than faithfully reproducing Stein, Picasso turns her face into a kind of mask. Thus her eyes and nose do not obey the normal rules of perspective and anatomy. Ironically, though this technique necessarily makes Stein’s face blank and inexpressive, the result is a convincing representation of the writer’s presence, of her indomitable energy. There is a charming story that, when told that Stein did not look anything like this portrait, Picasso responded “She will.” He was right: this portrait has helped to define Stein’s image far more than photographs of her. 

I will also mention the largest work on display in this Department: America Today, a mural by Thomas Hart Benton. It consists of ten canvasses, and shows in visual form the America of the 1930s. The work was commissioned by the New School of Social Research—a kind of progressive think tank. I quite like the mural, as I do much of the public art created during the Great Depression and the New Deal. Looking at this work, one feels that we modern Americans were successfully creating our own visual language with which to decorate our public monuments—much like the Egyptians and the Greeks. The inclusion of this large mural is also keeping with the Met’s proclivity for immersive artistic experiences.

Next we come to the massive Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Once again, the Met excels when it comes to the re-creation of historical spaces. One of the most beautiful rooms in the Met is an entire patio taken from a Renaissance Spanish villa—the Castle of Veléz Blanco. Not only are the carvings on the arches and columns, but the space is filled with quite lovely statues of mythical, historical, and religious figures. Just as astounding is a study from the Ducal Palace of Gubbio. Every surface is covered in images made using the technique of wood inlay (intarsia, or marquestry), which consists of piecing together little bits of colored wood in order to make a complex image. The amount of time it must have taken to assemble a whole room this way is frankly stupefying. The result is an extraordinary work of immersive art, whose walls symbolize different areas of human activity. I am sure the room itself is a greater accomplishment than whatever happened inside it.

These two rooms only scratch the surface of the department’s holdings of decorative arts. There is everything one would expect to find in the homes of aristocrats and royalty, from elaborate coffee pots to ornate globes. I admit that, however fine these products are, they are generally less interesting to me than the sculptures.

Some of the museum’s best sculptures can be found in gallery 548, which takes the form of a large atrium. On one side of the space, you can even see the brick façade of the museum’s original building (which is mostly buried in the later constructions). There are two outstanding statues in this space. The first is Perseus with the Head of Medusa, by Antonio Canova. It is an extremely fine work of Neoclassicism, achieving the idealized grace of the Greeks and Romans. Simply as a composition, the statue works marvelously, with the gruesome head balanced by the peculiarly barbed sword, making a strong diagonal. The other great statue (in my opinion) is Ugolino and his Sons, by Jean-Baptise Carpeux. This depicts a story taken out of Dante of an Italian count was—along with his sons and grandsons—imprisoned and starved to death. We see the count, driven almost to insanity through starvation and despair, surrounded by the tortured forms of his progeny.

Continuing on through the museum, the visitor will next reach the museum’s section of Medieval Art. Now, I feel justified in mostly passing over this department, since the bulk of the museum’s medieval art resides in the Cloisters Museum, uptown (an enchanting branch of the Met). Even so, it must be said that the central room of the Medieval Department is a beautiful space, with a high ceiling and high windows, like a cathedral. An ornate grill (from the Valladolid Cathedral, in Spain) stretches most of the way to the ceiling, and lovely examples of sculptures, tapestries, and stained glass give the space a properly church-like atmosphere. This last time around I was particularly impressed with the museum’s small collection of Byzantine art.

From here it is appropriate to go straight to the Department of Arms and Armor. As you can imagine, this was my favorite section to visit when I was a young kid, and did much to fuel my youthful obsession with swords and guns. Even now, I admit I find this section extremely impressive, and I have never seen any collection of historical weapons even half as good. The presentation is excellent. The visitor enters a large hall, where medieval flags are hanging from the ceiling. A group of mounted knights ride through the center, while other armored knights stand guard all around the periphery. One feels that one has entered a jousting tournament.

The suits of armor are fascinating and, often, strangely beautiful. They are like abstract sculptures of human forms, or a kind of proto-machine with moving parts. Though you naturally would think that a metal suit would be extremely cumbersome, you can see innumerable little joints made into the armor, giving the wearers a surprising range of movement. The most beautiful of these many suits on display is that made for Emperor Ferdinand I (brother of Charles V). Every piece of metal is covered in beautiful designs. Just as wonderful are the Japanese suits of armor on display. Rather than turning their wearers into metallic turtles, this armor is clearly designed for a different sort of fighting—one requiring more lightness and flexibility. The monstrous grimaces on the helmets would be genuinely terrifying if someone was coming at you wearing this.

Right next to this department is the American Wing. This is one of the areas where the Met is really untouchable. Other museums may have finer paintings or sculptures or what have you, but I do not think any museum has such a complete and rich collection of American art. Indeed, the American Wing could be cut off and moved to a different spot, and it would still be one of the finest museums in the country, I think. Its collection is vast, and it is so wonderfully presented. The visitor enters an enormous courtyard full of benches and statues. The glass wall and roof flood the space with light, making the department a welcome relief from the dark medieval section. Bright, colorful stained glass, and an equally colorful fountain, line the walls; and a beautiful bronze statue of Diana, lightly resting on one foot, occupies the center.

The visitor enters the main collection through a kind of pseudo-façade, as if this is an entirely different building. And, indeed, the visitor suddenly finds herself thrown into a richly-furnished home. In keeping with the museum’s penchant for interior spaces, there are a great many recreations of American interiors from different points in the country’s history. Surely, we have not invented anything as close to time travel as this. Proceeding onward, the visitor next finds a strange sort of room. It is in the shape of a large oval, and on the walls there is an enormous painting of the palace and the gardens of Versaille. When standing in the center of the room, the curving panoramic does create a satisfying illusion of actually standing in France. Just as the study in the Ducal Palace of Gubbio, this painting (by John Vanderlyn) must have taken a nauseating amount of time.

I walked up the stairs, and then found myself in what is called “open storage.” These are the chairs, tables, paintings, lamps, and everything else that the museum has but did not have the space to use. So they hang here, in transparent cases. I recommend a visit to this, if only because it gives you an idea of the enormous amount of material any major museum must be holding in storage.

Proceeding onward, we come to the painting gallery. There are far too many excellent works to name. I was particularly happy to see a portrait of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington—both of which used to hang in Hamilton’s home, up in Harlem. More conspicuously, there is the iconic painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware—almost ludicrously heroic. I was also happy to find Frederic Edwin Church’s painting, In the Heart of the Andes. Church was inspired by the naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, and included as much scientific detail as he could in this painting. Just as famous is John Singer Sargeant’s painting, Madame X, an intentionally risque (at the time) portrait of a society beauty (her real name was Madame Pierre Gautreau).

I was most delighted to learn that the museum has an entire room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I am no expert in the design of houses or in interior decoration, but I must say that it is both a welcoming and an animating space. It is easy to imagine myself reading a good novel within, while watching the snow fall out the windows. 

This completes our long circuit around the museum’s massive ground floor. If we continue on, we reach the Egyptian section again. So now let us return once again to the Great Hall, and then ascend the grand staircase to the museum’s first floor (or second, in America). 

Finally we come to the museum’s collection of European Paintings. Now, I must be careful here to avoid getting pulled into an endless catalogue of the museum’s excellent works. Like the American Wing, the Met’s Department of European Paintings could be a self-standing museum, and still be one of the best in the nation. Whether you like Dutch, Italian, French, or Spanish art, you will not leave the gallery disappointed (though German painting is fairly absent).

As you might expect, I am most interested in the Spanish paintings on display. The Met has excellent examples of the three great Spanish masters: Velázquez, El Greco, and Goya. The outstanding work of Velázquez is a portrait of Juan de Pareja, an enslaved man of African descent, which the artist executed in Italy. You will be pleased to hear that the great painter freed Juan de Pareja, who went on to become a skilled painter himself (there is a work of his hanging in the Prado). In any case, when you look at this painting, you do not see a man in bondage. To the contrary, Juan de Pareja appears almost regal with dignity. The painting is beautiful and startlingly realistic. To depict a man of African descent in such a way was a radical gesture on Velazquez’s part. 

Goya’s contribution is a portrait of Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, a very young aristocrat. As usual with Goya, the figure has an odd stiffness, and the face is inexpressive. The viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the scene at the boy’s feet, where two cats hungrily eye a magpie on a leash. This is a strangely morbid scene for a portrait of a youth, and it becomes all the more eerie when one considers that the boy died only a few years later, at the age of eight. El Greco’s outstanding work is his View of Toledo, the best of the artist’s few landscape paintings. As always, the artist’s signature style is immediately apparent: deep, rich colors combined with a dramatic verticality. This style is perfect for the city of Toledo—which is built on a hill overlooking a river, and filled with sharp towers. El Greco manages to imbue this wholly secular and inanimate scene with a burning spiritual intensity.

The number of excellent French painters in attendance dwarfs the representatives of any other nation. My personal favorite is Jacques Louis David. There is a charming portrait of the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, and his wife, who was executed during the French Revolution under false accusations. This is quite a historic loss, considering that Lavoisier is normally considered to be the father of modern chemistry. David’s more famous painting is his The Death of Socrates, a historical scene showing the great philosopher’s final moments. It is a work of brilliant dramatization. Socrates, who was very ugly and was quite old at the time, is shown as a partially nude Greek hero—with a muscular torso to boot. While I am not sure the painting captures the spirit of Plato’s dialogues, it is a brilliantly theatrical image.

On the subject of French painters, I must also mention The Love Letter, by Jean Honoré Fregonard, a delightfully coquettish image of a young woman receiving a note from her secret admirer. (I use this image in my blog’s newsletter.) I would love to keep going—since paintings speak to use in a modern language, easy for us to appreciate—but I will content myself with a short list of the artists in attendance: Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Ingres, Canaletto, Tiepollo, Turner, Klimt, Monet, Manet, Guaguin, Cézanne, Dürer, Memling, Rubens… Really even the list gets too long. The museum’s holdings of 19th century European paintings is so big, in fact, that the collection is held in a different section of the building.

To get there, you must pass a little hallway devoted to drawings, prints, and photographs. Now, you may be surprised to learn that, counted by individual works, this department is by far the biggest in the museum. But only a fraction of the drawings and prints in the museum’s holdings are on display at any given time. Sometimes they are taken out for special exhibitions, such as one on Michelangelo a few years ago. There, I got to see some of Michelangelo’s schematic drawings for fortresses, when he was briefly hired as a military engineer. Besides being innovative designs, the drawings themselves are beautiful works of abstract art.

Continuing on through the paintings of 19th and early 20th century Europe—where you can admire the great impressionists and post-impressionists—you get to the Department of Islamic Art. During my time in Spain I have come to admire Islamic art for its intricate designs, its geometrical sophistication, and its sense of divine calm. Wonderfully creative patterns decorate everything from tiles, to carpets, to pages of the Qur’an. As an example of the last, there is a stunning illuminated Qur’an from Turkey, whose decoration is just as intricate as the Book of Kells in Dublin. Representational is relatively uncommon in the Islamic world, as it is explicitly forbidden by the religion, but there are still some examples in the gallery. A particularly beautiful one is a tile panel from Iran, executed in a style that looks to my ignorant eye as if it could be Indian. A seductively posed woman is being courted by a man wearing a European hat. I wonder who made object, for whom, and where it would be placed, since it seems to so flagrantly flout the strictures of Islamic religion.

In keeping with the museum’s love of historical spaces, this section has the Damascus Room. This is a winter reception room from a palace in Damascus, Syria, made around the year 1700. It is a beautiful space. Shelves display ornate ceramics and the gilded covers of Qur’ans. Panels of lovely calligraphy (bearing messages from the Qur’an, I am sure) and floran designs decorate the walls, and the floor is covered with geometrical tiles. The ceiling is perhaps the most stunning of all, composed of elaborate woodwork. It is such a sophisticated, elegant space; it must certainly have set the tone for any conversations which took place within. 

Next we come to the museum’s relatively small section on the Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia). For the most part these halls are filled with wonderful little objects from long ago, like cylinder seals, jewelry, incense burners, and small-scale statues. Among this last category is a small statue of Gudea, made around 2,000 BCE. It is a work of skilled craftsmanship, showing us a Sumerian king in a rather humble pose. His robe bears an inscription in cuneiform about his accomplishments (typical propaganda). What is striking is the thoughtfulness and even the humility of the king’s gaze and pose. He strikes us as more of a monk than a fearsome ruler. Another outstanding work is the bronze head of an unknown ruler, made between 2300 and 2000 BCE. Though not exactly realistic, I think this work is remarkable for the degree of individualization in the ruler’s features. We are not looking at a generic, stylized male head, but a particular man from 3,000 years ago.

But the real stars of this department are the lamassu: colossal sculptures of human-headed winged lions that flank the hallways. These were made in Assyria, around 850 BCE. Walking through this hallway, flanked by these mythical figures, feels like walking into the past. One detail I particularly like is that the creatures have five legs, as a result of a bit of illusionism. The front two legs are parallel, as if the creature is standing still; yet from the side, an extra leg is added (invisible from the front) to make it look as though the creature is mid-stride when seen from the side. The walls surrounding these stone guardians are covered with friezes in low relief, depicting other mythological scenes. For me, this Assyrian art is as lovely anything in the Egyptian section. 

You emerge from ancient times onto the balcony overlooking the Great Hall. Here you can walk across and enter into the Department of Asian Art. This is one of my favorite areas of the museum, partly because of the art itself, and partly for the way that this department is laid out. Clever planning makes the department seem much bigger than it actually is, and walking through it the first time feels like exploring an old palace or temple.

The viewer enters the department by walking into a grand gallery, filled with enormous works of Chinese Buddhist art. There are large stele, bearing inscriptions and carvings, and an enormous sculpture of a Bodhisattva. This may, in fact, be the biggest statue in the museum. It is 13’9’’ (over 4 meters) and must weigh thousands of pounds. It is also quite beautiful, with richly decorated robes. On the wall is an even bigger paintings of the Buddha of Medicine, seated among a large retinue. It is a magnificent way to enter Asia.

From this large hall, one can either further explore Chinese art, on the left, or enter the arts of India, on the right. For the sake of consistency, we can begin with China. The Met’s collection of Chinese Buddhist sculpture is the largest outside of Asia, and more examples can be seen in Gallery 208. There are so many lovely sculptures. One I particularly like is a ceramic sculpture of an Arhat (or a Luohan, as they are known in China), which is a person who has achieved an advanced state of enlightenment. The sculpture is lifesize; and the man’s tired and worn expression is extremely compelling. His robes are still brightly colored, even though this was made over 1,000 years ago. 

The Met also has a wonderful collection of Chinese drawings, calligraphy, pottery, and much else. But, again, the most stunning room is the so-called Astor Court: a recreation of a Ming Dynasty-era courtyard. This is just another example of the stunning interiors from around the world collected at the Met. Finished in 1981, this installation was built by hand, using traditional methods; and besides being a beautiful work of art, it represented a landmark in cultural exchange between communist China and the United States. You enter through a round doorway guarded by two stone beasts (one is reminded of the lamassu in the Ancient Near East). Immediately you find yourself in a different world. A sheltered walkway surrounds a garden filled with oddly shaped rocks. These are called Taihu stones; they are formed via water erosion at the foot of a particular mountain in China (Dongting), and they are abstract sculptures in their own right.

At the end of the garden is a large room, designed to be used as a study, I believe. Unlike the great European interiors of the Met, this room does not appear at all ostentatious. Tather it is spare, restrained, and tasteful. As in the Damascus Room, it is impossible not to be awed by the high degree of sophistication and elegance of the room and the adjoining garden. I cannot but help imagining myself as a Ming Dynasty scholar, sitting in the garden and contemplating some intellectual puzzle. The space seems to invite contemplation.

Next we shall enter India and Southeast Asia. But before that, I ought to mention the Met’s small but delightful collection of Korean art. It is all in one room, Gallery 233, and I quite like the space. All of the objects are small, and many have a kind of geometrical simplicity and elegance which gives the space its own distinct aesthetic. But we have no time to stop and savor. We walk from China, through Korea, and into India. 

For me, the standout objects in these galleries are the many small figurines of gods. Indian sculpture enchants me for the kind of whimsical energy it often possesses. Though magnificent, the many gods do not seem remote or beyond reach, but rather quite approachable and inviting. These galleries are arranged chronologically, so we begin at around 2,000 BCE—about as old as anything in the Egyptian or the Ancient Near East sections—and move towards the present. To pick just a few of my favorite examples, there is an Avalokiteshvara Padmapani from the 7th century, a Bodhisattva who seems to be coyly beckoning. Or there is a statue of Shiva as the Lord of Dance, wherein the god is shown mid-stride, dancing within a fiery circle.

Another favorite is Yashoda with the Infant Krisha, who is suckling the young diety at her breast. This sculpture is especially resonant for Westerners, since we also have a tradition of representing the sacred mother suckling the divine child. But the style is here so very different. Whereas Mary is de-sexualized as much as possible, Yashoda is nearly naked and her breasts are almost comically large (of course, I am looking at this sculpture as a Westerner). Of course, Indian art is famous for its erotic content. An excellent example of this is a sculpture of a loving couple in a passionate embrace, made in the 13th century. You may be surprised to learn that this was part of the decoration of a temple. Certainly you would never see anything similar on a gothic cathedral! The last work I will mention is a statue of Ganesha from the 12th century. This elephant-headed god is the bestower of good fortune, and it is customary to make an offering before doing anything important. When I visited a few years ago, I was delighted to find that this practice extended into the museum: there were coins left at the base of the statue. 

We still have Japan to cover, but first we must take a little detour. Standing near the end of the section on India and Southern Asia is a beautiful wooden ceiling. This comes from a Jain temple built in the late 16th century. The staircase underneath this roof leads up to a small gallery on the floor above, this one devoted to the arts of Tibet and Nepal. For my part, this is some of the coolest art that I have ever seen. Though thematically related to art in both the Chinese and the Indian sections, the art here has a peculiar intensity not found anywhere else. An example of this is the painting of Walse Ngampa, a wrathful deity of Tibetan Buddhism. The figure has an electrifying intensity, with two arms wrapped around a terrified victim about to be devoured, while its many other arms are outstretched, holding symbolic objects.

When we descend, we can finally make our way to the section of Japanese art. Here, too, we can find some excellent statues. I particularly like the wooden guardian figures, which flank a statue of the Dainichi Nyorai, or the Cosmic Buddha. These guardian figures are formidable. I am always drawn to their fearsome grimaces. Even more wonderful is Ogata Korin’s ink drawing of waves on a folding panel. Here we can see a non-Western tradition of drawing that is intensely sophisticated. The waves do not occupy any kind of realistic space, but instead seem to emerge from nowhere and engulf everything. The lines of the waves are nothing like the blurry colors of Turner’s seascapes, giving the waves a disturbing sense of solidity; the leading edge of the water appears sharp and even claw-like. It is a wonderful image.

We have already spent hours and hours in this museum, and yet there is still more to see. From the Japanese Department we can move on to the Department of Musical Instruments. This is housed in two galleries overlooking the section of Arms and Armor. I have never seen a collection of musical instrument that even comes close to the Met’s collection. There are superb examples of instruments from around the world: Italian harpsichords, Chinese pipas (similar to a lute), Native American rattles, Congolese horns, and Japanese drums. Seeing them in this context reminds us that instruments can be very beautiful simply as objects. To pick just one extravagant example, there is an Indian taus (a bowed lute) in the form of a peacock. And, of course, we must not neglect to mention the Stradivarius violins.

This gallery also has paintings with musical subjects hanging on the walls. My favorite is Dancing in Columbia, by Fernando Botero, if only because a copy of it has been hanging in my mother’s living room as far back as I can remember. Two balconies connect the two halves of the instrument department. On one of these is a charming old organ, and on the other is a fantastic assortment of wind instruments, arranged as if they are exploding from a central point. It is an evocative representation of a fanfare. 

By now we have made our way through most of the major sections of the museum. There is only one place left on our tour: the Robert Lehman Collection. Robert Lehman was a banker who owned one of the biggest and best private art collections in history. Active for a long time on the Metropolitan Board of Directors, he bequeathed his extraordinary collection to the Met, but on the condition that it not be mixed in with the other departments. Thus, the Met built a special space, attached at the back of the building, almost like a spaceship taking off from the main building. The rooms of the department are furnished to vaguely evoke a private home. Personally, I do not like having this department separate, since I do not see any good reason to do so other than vanity. If Lehman wanted his collection separate, he could have done what Frick or Morgan did, and established his own museum. But, in any case, there are some extraordinary works of art to be found, so it cannot be missed.

Robert Lehman seems to have been most interested in European paintings, and that is what we find in abundance. One of my favorites is The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, by Giovanni di Paolo. I love the color pallette of the paintings, filled with rich dark hues. But I am most drawn to the representation of the creation of the world: with God holding a series of concentric circles surrounding an image of Eden. Most famous, perhaps, is a portrait by Ingres of the Princesse de Broglie. It is an iconic image. Ingres’s technique is masterful, brilliantly capturing the rich fabric of her dress and furniture. It is also psychologically subtle, as it shows us a woman poised between shy reserve and self-assuredness.

There are dozens of other great paintings in this collection, and thousands upon thousands of great works in the museum, but this is where our tour must end. I have already written far too much. But the Met is endless—or, at least, it might as well be.

Confronted with such an enormous mass of culture and beauty from all around the world, it is difficult to know how to react. Part of me wonders whether all of these objects really should be here. With the financial resources that the Met possesses, the museum has been able to get nearly anything. But should they? And were all of the objects collected in ways that we would now approve of? Admittedly, the museum is trying to address this last question with their Provenance Project, paying particular attention to works that may have been looted by the Nazis and not restituted to their rightful owners. Personally I wonder about many of the objects in the Department of Oceanic, African, and American arts. 

On the other hand, I think it is important that we do have spaces where we can see the human experience as one enormous tapestry. Traveling from Egypt, to China, to Turkey, to Senegal—in short, to nearly every inhabited corner of the world—and seeing these different traditions unfold through centuries of time: one would hope that this might lead to some insight into our human condition. There are some very obvious lessons, the most obvious one being that humans really like to make art. Other common themes are the relationships between art and power, or art and religion. It is all too much to really digest everything. But I hope every visit provides just a little bit more to chew on.

To conclude rather lamely, the Met is a uniquely excellent museum. Not only does it have vast and high-quality collections, but the museum also does some things that other comparable museums do not. As often mentioned, there is the museum’s emphasis on interior decoration and the arts of daily life. More important is the museum’s attempt to be all-inclusive: incorporating art from all over the world, and from every historical period. The Met’s view of art is expansive, incorporating not only paintings and sculptures, but swords, helmets, harpsichords, photographs, and dresses (the Costume Institute is downstairs). It is a kind of universal storehouse of human activity. I will surely keep going as long as my legs will take me.

Letters from Spain #7: A Walk Through Spanish History

Letters from Spain #7: A Walk Through Spanish History

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

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-7-a-walk-through-spanish-history/id1469809686?i=1000458091403

For the transcript, see below:


Hello.

I have to begin this letter on a somber note. This Monday, November 25, was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This issue is a big concern in Spain. It seems like there is always a story on the news about a woman who was murdered by a partner, or about men who have sexually abused women without facing consequences. So far this year, 52 women have been killed by their partners, and only 11 of them had filed any kind of police report beforehand. I am sometimes asked by Spaniards if we in America have such a big violence against women problem. Though I am inclined to say yes, it strikes me that in America we do not discuss domestic violence nearly as often as they do here in Spain.

So I decided to see if I could find some figures that I could compare between the two countries. In the United States, in 2005, 1,181 women were killed by an intimate partner. For that same year in Spain, 63 women were killed by partners or ex-partners. Keeping in mind that the population of Spain is about one-seventh the population of the United States, the American figure is still much bigger. So it seems that we in America have a much worse domestic violence problem than they have here in Spain. Though it is sad news, to me it is not very surprising. The easy access to guns in America makes all forms of violence more common, or at least more deadly. The reason we don’t talk about domestic violence as much in America as in Spain, I think, is that in America all of our conversations about violence end up being arguments about guns. In Spain, the issue is normally framed more as a cultural problem—the culture of machismo

As tempting as it would be now to launch into a rant about American gun violence or machista culture, this episode is focused on a slightly more peaceful topic (well, maybe not): the history of Spain. This past weekend, I finally took the time to revisit one of the great museums in Madrid: the Museo de Arqueología Nacional (the National Archaeology Museum). It is a bit out of the way for most tourists, though not much. The museum is housed in the same enormous building as the National Library, which is also worth a visit, if only to see the ornate façade complete with sculptures of iconic Spanish writers (like Lope de Vega or Cervantes). The Archaeology Museum is huge, and fascinating, and very cheap: only three euros, and free on Saturday afternoons.

The museum goes through the prehistory and history of Spain from the earliest times to the early modern period (about the 1700s). Human ancestors have been in the Iberian peninsula for at least one million years. Quite a long time. One of the most famous early-hominid sites in Spain is Atapuerca, near the city of Burgos. (Researchers are still debating what species to assign to the fossils found there.) Around 200,000 years ago, the Neanderthals set up shop in Iberia, and began making all sorts of little sharp stone tools. There were probably homo sapiens, too, and it is possible the two species interbred. They at least influenced one another’s technology. By far the most famous artifact left by the prehistoric humans of Iberia are the cave paintings in Altamira, which were made around 36,000 years ago. The archaeology museum has a beautiful replica of these caves near the entrance, made using traditional methods. If we can judge by these cave paintings, two things have occupied the Spanish for a very, very long time: painting and bulls.

Soon enough in the museum’s collection we get to the development of agriculture, permanent settlements, pottery, metallurgy, and all of the other dubious developments of sedentary life. Sometime around 500 BCE, the Celts came into Spain. (And I bet a lot of people didn’t know that the Celts were in Spain.) You can still see traces of their culture in the northwest corner of the country, Galicia. Meanwhile, the Phonecians (from northern Africa) began to colonize the south of the peninsula. The city of Cádiz has been inhabited since around 1,000 BCE, making it the oldest city in Spain. A bit later, the Greeks started landing on the East coast, establishing the city of Empúries, which is in modern-day Catalonia. They did this around 600 BCE.

Under the influence of the Greeks and the Phoenecians, a new indigenous culture eventually emerged in the East Peninsula, which is now called simply the Iberian culture. The museum has quite a few beautiful examples of Iberian sculpture, such as the so-called Lady of Elche—an imposing woman with Princess Leia hair. In general, Iberian sculpture is distinguished from the typical Greek style by its abstract stylization. Its rediscovery in the early 20th century influenced Picasso. But the culture was not to last, since the Iberian Peninsula eventually was the site of the Punic wars—the clash between Ancient Rome and Hannibal’s Carthage. Rome won, of course, and then incorporated Iberia into the ever-growing Roman Empire. Iberia then became Hispania, and its culture became roman. 

You don’t need to go to the archaeology museum to see evidence of Rome’s influence. There are Roman ruins in Segovia, Mérida, and Tarragona, to pick just three examples. But you don’t even need to look that far: the whole Spanish language evolved from Latin. The museum has some wonderful examples of metal sheets on which Roman laws were published. I like to imagine a Roman lawyer doing his research on a rainy day, standing in his toga outside in the plaza, bent over, reading these laws. In any case, the Romans really Romanized Spain: they built aqueducts, temples, fortresses, bath houses, dams, lighthouses, roads, theaters, amphitheaters—tons of stuff. Talk about a colonial mindset. But at least they had a sense of style. The archaeology museum in Madrid has some beautiful samples of Roman floor and wall mosaics, which in my opinion are in better taste than any of our interior decoration.

Rome lasted a long, long time. Spain was controlled by the Romans for about 700 years, which left an indelible mark on the country. But eventually Rome declined and fell. This left a huge power vacuum, which allowed the Visigoths to move in from the north of Europe. The museum has a few interesting artifacts from this period, but really it was not a time that left a huge archaeological footprint. After all, these were the Dark Ages. The Visigoths only enjoyed their time on top for about 200 years, until they were crushed by the invading Muslims, who came in from across the Strait of Gibraltar.

This was the beginning of Al-Andalus, or Moorish Spain. (The word moro in Spanish is considered slightly offensive, but in English “Moorish” is standard.) This was actually another cultural high point in the history of the peninsula. While most of Europe was still slowly crawling its way back from the Dark Ages, Moorish Spain was an advanced place. New crops and agricultural techniques were introduced, major philosophers like Averroes and Moses Maimonides lived and wrote, and beautiful buildings were constructed, like the Great Mosque of Cordoba or the Alhambra in Granada. The Archaeology Museum has some amazing examples of Moorish art and architecture, as well as some works made by Christians in a Moorish style (which is called mudéjar). The Moors left a sizable linguistic heritage, too, as thousands of Spanish words come from Arabic.

Eventually the power of the Moors fractured, and the power of the Christians in the north grew and consolidated. After many centuries of battles, shifting alliances, and gradual conquest, the Christians pushed south until the last Moorish kingdom—Granada—fell in 1492, and modern Spain was born. Soon the country entered its Golden Age as the pre-eminent global superpower, with colonies all around the world (thanks partly to Columbus), and most of Europe under its thumb. But this was not to last. By the 1700s, Spain was a decidedly second-rate power in Europe, even if it still managed to hang on to its colonies. The museum has some lovely objects from the Enlightenment in Spain, but it must be said that the Age of Reason was a tame affair here compared with, say, France or England. 

This is when the museum’s collection ends. You must go elsewhere if you want to trace Spain’s history to the present day. Even so, I think this brief story gives a taste of why travelling in Spain is so fascinating. So many different cultures shared this relatively small bit of land, and they are all piled up on top of each other. In a single day, you can go from a gothic cathedral, to a Roman bridge, to a Moorish mosque. The cave paintings of Altamira, for example, are situated right next to a beautiful medieval village. This is something that we just don’t have in America, mostly because European colonization so completely wiped out the indigenous cultures. 

Speaking of European colonization, I should also mention Thanksgiving before I end this podcast. Of course, Thanksgiving in Spain means precisely: nothing. Thursday is a work day just like any other. Well, my brother got the day off somehow, but in my case I’ll spend Thanksgiving giving presentations about Thanksgiving to Spanish children who must go through this every year. But I do think that Thanksgiving encapsulates America like no other holiday can. What do we do? We eat until we’re sick, we watch men tackling each other on television, or we watch giant floating cartoons, or we argue about politics, and then the next day we all go shopping for things we don’t need. It is America in a nutshell. My own Thanksgiving celebrations will have to wait until Friday. There is no way a whole turkey is going to fit inside my little tabletop oven. Well, I’ll figure it out.

For now, I’m thankful to be here.

Review: Maya to Aztec

Review: Maya to Aztec
Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed

Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed by Edwin Barnhart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is another excellent lecture series by Edwin Barnhart. Just earlier this year I listened to, and greatly enjoyed, his series on the civilizations of North America. Now he is on his home turf, for Barnhart is a specialist in Maya archaeology. Surprisingly, however, I thought that the lecture series got off to something of a rough start. He jumps right into the Olmecs without enough framing or background. But soon enough I got my bearings, and the rest was a delightful trip through Meso-American archaeology.

Although I was somewhat more familiar with the basics of the Mayans and the Aztecs than with the ancient peoples of North Americans, I was still astounded at the depths of my own ignorance. It is frankly incredible that you can go through the American educational system and learn infinitely more about the Babylonians, Egyptians, and the Greeks than about the Mayans and the Aztecs. Granted, much of what we know about these civilizations was discovered fairly recently. The Mayan script was only deciphered in the 1970s; and as Barnhart points out, there is so much left to be discovered, including whole cities. Barnhart himself discovered a city (Maax Na).

The pyramids, pictoral script, and ancient date of these civilizations naturally bring up associations of Egypt. Yet the comparison is somewhat misleading, since the peoples of Meso-America consisted of a patchwork of cultures, sharing obvious similarities but equally important differences, whose fortunes waxed and waned through the centuries. Egypt, by contrast, was a singularly homogenous culture. Mesopotamia is likely a better comparison in this regard. But, of course, the Meso-American cultures have many distinct features.

One of the most important is the elaborate calendar system. Barnhart, an expert on paleo-archaeology, goes into great detail in explaining the Mayan numeral and calendrical systems. What is striking is not only the great complexity of the system, but also the cultural importance of the calendar. It was used by the entire region; and its keepers—who were religious men—communicated with one another even while their own states were at war. The calendar was filled with significance and omens, and was always consulted before important tasks. Barnhart speculates that the cyclical nature of the calendar also explains why cities were periodically abandoned.

Another peculiar feature is the Meso-American ball game, which was played across the region. This ball game was not just a sport, but a kind of living metaphor for Meso-American cosmology. I am not familiar of any other examples from the ancient world of a sport being so culturally central. And, of course, there is the human sacrifice—especially among the Aztecs. It is difficult to hear about these practices nowadays; though I do wonder which area had more religion-inspired killings during this time: Meso-America or Europe?

Barnhart ends the lecture series by narrating the first European contact and the eventual destruction of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés and his men. (There is a new series on Amazon about Cortés, which was made to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlán, which happened in 1521.) It is an exciting and a depressing story, as the work of centuries is burned or buried. But Barnhart ends on a positive note, observing the many ways that these cultures have survived, and expressing hope that the modern descendants of the Maya, the Aztecs, and the many other cultures will take control of their heritage. For my part, now I really want to go to Mexico.



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Review: Bullshit Jobs

Review: Bullshit Jobs

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.


Reading this was cathartic. Like so many people, I, too, have experienced the suffering that is a useless job—a job that not only lacks any real benefit to society, but which also does not even benefit the company. (Lucky for me, I am now a teacher, which, for all its unpleasant aspects, almost never feels useless.) Even though I got a lot of reading and writing done on the job, the feeling of total futility eventually drove me half-crazy. So it felt liberating to read an entire book about this phenomenon.

But let me take a step back and explain the book. In 2013 Graeber published an article in STRIKE! magazine (a fairly obscure publication) about bullshit jobs, and it immediately went viral. This book is basically an articulation, elaboration, and defense of the points in that short article. Graeber notes that Keynes predicted the rise of automation to cause a startling reduction in the work-week. Yet this has not occurred. Many economists explain this by pointing to the rise of the so-called “service” industry. But this would seem to imply that we have switched from factory-work to making lattes for one another, or giving each other massages. As Graeber shows, this is hardly the case: the number of people in such jobs has remained fairly constant. What has grown, rather, is a vast edifice of managerial and administrative work.

Anyone familiar with the academic world will instantly recognize this. Universities have come to be dominated by a top-heavy administrative structure, and faculty have been forced to spend ever-increasing amounts of time on bureaucratic nonsense. The same is true in the medical field, or so I hear. Really, the story is the same everywhere: an increasingly arcane hierarchy of administrators, leading to byzantine networks of paperwork—all of it ostensibly for improving quality, and yet manifestly distracting from the real work. This kind of ritualistic box-ticking is only one of the types of bullshit jobs that Graeber investigates. Also included are flunkies (subordinates whose only role is to make superiors feel important), goons (jobs which arise from a kind of arms race, such as marketing agents or corporate lawyers), and duct tapers (who are hired to patch over an easily-fixed problem).

Obviously, one could argue all day about the typology of useless jobs. One could also argue about which jobs, if any, are useless. It must be said that Graeber’s reliance on subjective experience of his informants does introduce a worrisome element of capricious judgment. Besides this, some might say that the free market can never give rise to useless jobs, since such things would be obviously detrimental to a company’s profits. But one need only read through the many testimonies collected by Graeber to be convinced that, yes, some jobs really ought not to exist. According to surveys, around 40% of workers report that they believe their own jobs to be useless—so useless that they could vanish tomorrow without anyone minding. To pick just one of Graeber’s examples: a man works for a subcontractor of a subcontractor of a contractor for the German military, whose job is to fill out the paperwork necessary to allow somebody to move their desk from one room to another room. I do not think this is necessary.

But this raises the obvious question: If so many jobs are really useless, why do they exist? One might understand this happening in the government, but this is precisely the sort of thing that the private sector should be immune from. Well, Graeber is an anthropologist, not an economist, and so his explanations are social and cultural. He cites several factors. There is a huge amount of political pressure, from the left and the right, to create more jobs. This is natural, since being out of work means being poor, or worse. More than that, we have culturally internalized the institution of “work” to the extent that our jobs are the primary source of meaning in many people’s lives, even if they ultimately are disagreeable. Indeed, Graeber believes it is just the unpleasantness of work that makes it a source of value in our culture, as it becomes a type of ennobling suffering.

Graeber also notes the usefulness of useless jobs to the upper classes. For one, they keep people endlessly busy; and, what is more, well-paying, white-collar jobs—even useless ones—make their holders identify with the interests of the upper class. The economy then becomes a kind of engine for distributing favors and resources down an elaborate chain of command. Graeber coins the term “managerial feudalism” for this arrangement: the return of the medieval obsession with ranks mirrored by the modern penchant for inflated job titles. Now, my brief summary does not do justice to Graeber’s writing. Nevertheless, it is here where one wishes most for an economist to contribute to the argument. For even if there are forces countervailing the pressures of profit, the economy is still running on manifestly capitalist lines. So how could a sort of inefficient feudalism exist in this context?

Another point that Graeber examines is the relative pay of people with useful and useless employment. The obvious trend is that jobs which have undeniable social value—like nurses and teachers—are paid less, while jobs that have questionable or even negative social value—such as “creative vice presidents” and corporate lobbyists—are richly rewarded. Now, I do not think you need to be an idealist to see this situation as undesirable. Graeber explains this tendency by analyzing the culture of work (specifically, that useful employment is supposed to be its own reward, while useless employment requires incentives), but again one craves an economic explanation. (This, by the way, is one of the frustrations of social science: that the different disciplines operate with incompatibly different premises and methodologies.)

For my part, my own experience, combined with the many testimonies and statistics in this book, is enough to convince me that some jobs are really bullshit—even from the limited standpoint of a company’s profit. And I think that Graeber may be correct in searching for a cultural and political, rather than a strictly “economic,” explanation. After all, we humans are not exactly renowned for our rational economies. But for my part, I think he may have underestimated the role that corporate mergers have played in vastly reducing competition—and, thus, the pressure to eliminate useless jobs.

While all of this deserves analysis and debate, I think that this book is valuable if only for raising serious questions about the institution of work itself. The more that I read about history, the more I have come to see our modern ritual of work as strange and aberrant. The idea that we would all go to work five days a week, eight hours a day, year after year—regardless of whether we are making cars or filling out forms, and regardless of how much work there is on any given day—would have struck people in nearly any other place and time as bizarre.

To me, it just seems backwards to use a cookie-cutter schedule for every task (from lawyer to salesman), and then expect every member of society to adopt this basic template or risk abject poverty. Considering that the economy requires a certainly level of employment to function, and that the current social safety net could not support a large number of unemployed people anyway, perhaps it should come as no surprise that we are plagued by dummy jobs. And if you think about it, it would be an amazing coincidence if the economy—through all the structural and technological changes of the previous century—always needed between 90 to 95 percent of the working population at any given time.

Graeber’s proposed solution to this problem is Universal Basic Income—providing every person with a regular paycheck, sufficient to cover the necessities of life. Personally I think that this is a wonderful idea, and one which could greatly alleviate many of our social ills. Unfortunately, in the United States, at least, UBI seems just as likely as paid maternity leave. But whatever the means, I think it is high time to change our attitude towards work. We spend enormous amounts of time doing things we do not want to do, and, what is worse, things which often do not need to be done. What fuels this is a kind of masochistic work ethic, defining our worth by our ability to do things that we do not want to do. This ethic has so pervaded our culture that, in America at least, we take it for granted that everything form health care to our self-respect should depend on our jobs.

One of Graeber’s most interesting points is that the phenomenon of useless jobs may reveal that we are using a flawed conception of human nature. One would think that being paid to do little or nothing would be the height of happiness. But most people in useless jobs report profound feelings of unease and distress. Again, my own experience testifies to this. Though I had little work, and was paid decently, I often found myself miserable, even beside myself with a strange mixture of boredom and anxiety. Graeber has a long section on this, but basically it comes down to the way that useless work undermines our sense of agency in the world. There is a reason the gods punished Sisyphus that way. As Dostoyevsky said, having humans perform an unpleasant, uninteresting, and totally worthless task might be the most profound form of torture. In my own case, it gave me a very unsettling feeling of dissociation, as if I really could not control my own actions.

So if we build our economy on the assumption that humans, left to themselves, will choose to get the maximum reward for the least benefit, we may be building on false premises. I think that Graeber is right, and that people generally prefer feeling like they are doing something useful. This is why I think we ought not to fear that Universal Basic Income, or a drastic reduction in working hours, would lead to a society of lazy idlers. In any case, people bored at home may do something more worthwhile than people bored at work, who mostly seem to go on social media. (Graeber notes that the rise in social media use coincides with the rise of useless employment. Certainly it was true in my case, that useless employment led naturally to spending huge amounts of time on Facebook.)

This summary does not do justice to the full contents of the book. Graeber is a sharp writer and an agile thinker. Not only is he the first to really hone in on this strange aspect of the modern world, but he does so within a wide perspective. To give just a few more examples, he connects the rise of bullshit jobs with the slowdown in scientific progress and the decline in quality of Hollywood movies. Perhaps Graeber’s political identity as an anarchist helps him to avoid the basic narratives of both the left and the right, and to develop strikingly original opinions about social problems. While I am not anarchist myself, I think the institution of work deserves far more questioning and criticism. We have accepted work as the bedrock of society and the foundations of our lives’ meanings, and yet most of us do not particularly like it. If I could wax utopian for a moment, I would imagine a movement devoted to the creation of a society of leisure. I would even work for it.



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Letters from Spain #6: Spanish Time and Spanish Space

Letters from Spain #6: Spanish Time and Spanish Space

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

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-6-spanish-time-and-spanish-space/id1469809686?i=1000457406871

For the transcript, see below:


Well, this past week has been fairly unremarkable. Really, the only podcast-worthy thing that happened was yet another bad experience with Spanish banks. Basically, I went to a bank during my lunch break to try to pay some government fees for my visa. But I was turned away by no fewer than three banks. You see, it is common, not only for banks to be open during quite restricted hours (which is why I had to go during my lunch break), but also to have even more ludicrously restricted hours when they allow you to actually do things, like pay a government fee. It all reminds me of a book I am reading about useless employment.

But I cannot let myself get sucked into another rant about Spanish banks, as gratifying as it would be. Today, I want to talk about something different: the Spanish sense of time and space.

The phrase “Spanish time” is familiar to every American who lives in Spain. The idea is basically that everything is always late: people arrive late, nothing starts on time, and so on. Now, I actually think that this is an unfair stereotype. The vast majority of the people I’ve worked with have been very punctual. In fact, I catch myself being late more often than my Spanish coworkers. Obviously these things vary a lot from person to person. But I’d be willing to bet that, if some kind of study were performed, it would be found that Spaniards are, on the whole, just as likely to show up on time for an engagement as an American.

But I am not suggesting that there is no such thing as “Spanish time.” Punctuality is only a tiny aspect of a culture’s sense of time. In some ways Spain is indeed extremely anomalous. This is most notable when it comes to meal times. Spaniards eat lunch and dinner quite late, even compared to their Mediterranean counterparts. Lunch at three is not unusual, and neither is dinner at ten. In fact, many tourists are annoyed to find that they cannot even keep to their American schedules, since it is common for the kitchens in Spanish restaurants not to open until around 1:00, and to close between, say, 4:30 and 8:00. So no lunches at noon or six-o’-clock dinners in Spain.

Spanish time is strange in another respect. Though Spain occupies around the same latitude as England, it is one hour later in Spain than in England. This means that the sun rises and sets quite late in Spain. Right now, for example, the sun rises at about 8 and sets at about six. (In the west of Spain it’s obviously a bit later.) Meanwhile, the sun rises at around 6:45 in New York, and sets at around 4:30. Now, the reason for this difference dates back to the Franco era, when he apparently switched his time zone to coincide with Germany’s, apparently in a gesture of goodwill towards Hitler. England, apparently, switched its timezone to central European time, too, right before the Second World War. But after the war, England switched back, but Spain stayed.

Maybe it’s partly as a consequence of this off-kilter time zone that things tend to happen a bit later in Spain. For example, even though Spaniards have a reputation for laziness, it is common for Spanish people to work until eight o’clock at night! Even workaholic Americans would not accept such hours as normal. Granted, Spaniards do often have a significant break in the middle of the day for lunch, at least an hour. This, of course, is the famous Spanish “siesta.” Now, there’s a lot to say about the siesta. For one, sleeping in the middle of the day makes a lot of sense if you live in the south of the country, where afternoon temperatures can make any activity impossible.

But the more important point is that, for the vast majority of Spaniards, the siesta does not exist. Honestly I wish it did. If I was given time to go home and nap for a bit every day, I am sure I would feel a lot better in general. But the midday break is simply not long enough for most Spanish people to leave the office, go home, eat lunch, sleep, and then make it back to the office. I salute the lucky few who can, since I think it is a healthier and saner way to live. But the siesta is an important cultural institution nonetheless, even if it doesn’t usually involve sleeping. This is because lots of things in Spain—shops, offices, and even churches—close around lunch time. It takes a lot of getting used to, really, since this is normally the perfect time to do things.

On the subject of Spanish time, we also must mention the schedule of Spanish partying. Just as Spaniards eat lunch and dinner late, they go out late. Just the other day, I happened to be chatting with a bunch of Spaniards are they prepared to hit the town for Halloween. The clock had struck midnight before they left the apartment. As you can imagine, if they only start at midnight, they don’t stop until the wee hours of the morning. Partying all night in Spain is not only common, but the norm. I really have no idea how they do it, or why they want to. But if you want to have a good time with a group of Spanish people, make sure you don’t have anything important to do the next morning.

As you can see, Spanish time is in some ways quite different from American time. But I think that the Spanish version of space is, if anything, even more different than how we Americans think of space.

The most obvious example of this is in the realm of personal space. Americans typically want a lot more of it than Spaniards do. It is a common experience for Americans to find themselves backing away while speaking to Spaniards, since for us Americans it can feel like Spanish people get way too close. I still have trouble with it, sometimes. I just can’t get used to talking with someone when their face is only a few centimeters from mine. But, you do slowly adapt. I remember one time, when I went back to America for the summer, I was told by the person in the post office than I should back away. When you’re talking to someone behind a desk in Spain, you typically lean in.

Related to personal space is the issue of touching. In Spain it is far more acceptable to casually touch somebody. This can take a thousand forms, but it can really make Americans uncomfortable. In America, if a stranger is touching you, you are either very happy or in immediate danger. In other words, touching between strangers in America is rarely casual. For whatever reason, people in Spain have much less fear of sexual harassment—either being the victim of it, or being accused of it—which is such a huge cloud hanging over American interpersonal relations. When I first came to Spain, I thought that every man was dating every woman, since they all touched each other in ways that struck me as extremely flirtatious. But I was wrong. To pick another example, primary school teachers in Spain have no issues hugging, kissing, or pinching the cheeks of their students, while in America this is a fearful taboo. 

So personal space can be very different in Spain. But there is another difference, which I think is quite a bit more interesting. This has to do with the difference between public and private space. In Spain, I think this contrast is far more sharp than in America, and I say this for a few reasons. For one, it is very common—even the norm—in the United States to invite friends over or to be invited over. In my case, I spend the vast majority of my time with American friends in someone’s house. We go to a bar or a restaurant maybe a few times a month.

But in Spain this is a totally different story. Most friends, even good friends, meet outside the home, in a neutral space. Whenever I ask my high school kids what they did over the weekend, they always say they “went to the street,” meaning they walked around or hung out in a park, doing God knows what. Likewise, adult friends are more likely to meet in a bar or a restaurant than in someone’s living room.

Part of this is a simple preference. Compared to Americans—who are lovers of their own property—Spanish people love to be in public, surrounded by people. Again, while an American might feel overwhelmed by an intensely crowded bar, many Spaniards seem to think this is a good thing. The street, the bar, the café, the square—this is where life happens in Spain. And for this reason Spain can be such a vibrant, energetic place to be. The people aren’t in their homes, but outside, socializing in large numbers. You can even see this preference reflected if you see portions of the Spanish countryside from the air. Rather than a bunch of isolated farms scattered about, the people live all bunched together, with miles and miles of uninhabited land all around them. 

I also think, as I said, that Spanish people also have a stronger sense of the divide between public and private than Americans do. For Spanish people, the home is just not a place to have a party. That’s for a public space. To illustrate this point, I think it is enlightening to think about Spanish and American homes. My home back in NY, for example, has a front lawn entirely open to the street. Most of the front windows can be easily seen from the outside. By contrast, most of the houses I see in Spain have a wall entirely encircling the property, making it difficult to see anything going on within. To me, this has much more to do with the Spanish idea of a home as an isolated space, than any functional purpose associated with the wall. 

To sum up, for a European country, Spain presents some striking contrasts to the United States. Why these differences arose is an interesting question, but one which would take serious historical research to answer. For now, I am content with just pointing out the differences.

Thank you.

Letters from Spain #5: Elections and Opera

Letters from Spain #5: Elections and Opera

Here is episode five of my podcast about life in Spain:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-5-elections-and-opera/id1469809686?i=1000456741892

For the full transcript, see below:


Winter is in the air here in Madrid. It’s not just the cold that lets you know, but the smell. The churro trucks have now taken their positions in the city, selling that most wonderful of Spanish junk foods. I was surprised, when I first came to Spain, to learn that churros, by themselves, are not particularly sweet. In fact, if anything they’re a little salty. The secret is chocolate. Spaniards dip their churros in a thick liquid chocolate. And when they’re done with the churro, they drink the chocolate. At first I could not understand how old women managed to chug down such a viscous, heavy drink. The first time I tried it, I thought I would choke—the chocolate is nothing like our American hot chocolate, which is so milky. But, now I can happily have two or three of those chocolates.

The other staple of Spanish streets in wintertime are the chestnuts. Vendors roast chestnuts on charcoal grills, creating a wonderful aroma that spreads everywhere. It’s fantastic.

Well, another week has rolled around. And it has been an eventful one. Most notably, this last Sunday, the tenth of November, Spain has had its elections. Now, there is nothing that makes me feel quite so much like a foreigner as when there are elections. Of course, not being a Spanish citizen, I cannot vote. And even though I live in Spain, I don’t have very much to gain or to lose by the results of the elections. So I feel very left out. Besides all that, like many Americans I have had trouble understanding how a foreign country’s government—Spain’s government—works.

I will try not to bore you with the details—which I don’t even know anyways—but here’s what I have learned so far. Spain’s democracy is quite young, since it only began in 1978 with the death of Franco. The country has had literally dozens of constitutions throughout its history, beginning with the Napoleonic invasions, but the current constitution is only the second fully democratic one. (The first one, of 1931, lasted only five years until the Spanish Civil War and ended when Franco took power.) Before his death, Franco groomed the prince of Spain, Juan Carlos, to be his dictatorial heir. But the young monarch surprised everyone after Franco died by moving resolutely in the direction of democracy. And so, to make a long story short, the current government was born.

Like many countries around the world, Spain has a parliamentary system. This is confusing for Americans. In America we vote separately for the legislature—our representatives and senators—and for the president. In Spain, on the other hand, the president is not directly chosen by the people (or even the electoral college), but instead by the legislature. So basically, if one party achieves a majority in the parliament, the leader of that party will become the president. This means that you can’t have the president be of one party and then the congress controlled by the opposing party, which so often happens in America. For this reason, parliamentary systems are often more decisive than the American model, since there aren’t so many checks and balances between the legislature and executive, and the two are much more closely involved.

Now, the situation is more complicated if no single party achieves a majority. This is what happened in the recent elections. Then, the government must be run by a coalition, which usually means that the party with the most votes needs to cut a deal with a smaller party (or two…) in order to achieve the necessary majority. To be specific, the country’s socialist party, PSOE, won the most votes this last election, but not enough to have an absolute majority. To achieve a majority, they teamed up with a party called Podemos, a left-wing populist party. Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the socialists, is therefore now the president, and the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesías, is the vice president. So Spain, unlike many European countries nowadays, has a leftist government. But to maintain power these two parties not only need to work with each other—which has been difficult for them recently—but to work with several smaller, regional parties, most notably those Catalonian parties that favor independence. We’ll see if they can work it out.

I should mention another curious aspect of parliamentary systems, at least from the perspective of an American. In Spain, there is no fixed timing for elections. The Spanish don’t, like us, automatically vote every four years, even though politicians do have term limits. Rather, elections happen when there are special circumstances. For example, a government may call a snap election in the hopes of bolstering its majority—this is what happened this past April, which was the last election. (So the last election was just a few months ago.) Or elections may be held if the current parliament fails to form a working majority or coalition, maybe because one party is holding out in the hopes of better election results. This is what recently happened. (It didn’t pan out for the socialists.)

Oh, and I should mention that Spain is still technically a monarchy, even though the king does not have any real power. King Felipe VI is the head of state in Spain. From what I can tell, though lots of Spaniards don’t like having a monarchy, and though some Spaniards are die-hard monarchists, most people don’t seem to pay the monarchy much mind. It’s not like England, where the royal family are tabloid celebrities.

Anyways, anyways, I don’t want to bore you with a treatise on Spanish government. Even Spanish people don’t talk that much about Spanish politics, at least compared to how much we Americans talk about American politics. Ironically, however, the voter turnout in Spain is higher than it is in America! This can be hard for us Americans to believe, since we like to think we invented democracy, and in any case we spend so much energy on politics. But most of Europe has us beat in that regard. Maybe it helps that elections in Spain are on Sundays, and not Tuesdays.

The funny thing about the recent elections is that, from what I can tell, most Spaniards aren’t talking about who won, but rather but who lost. During the rise of Trump and the whole Brexit fiasco—not to mention similar right-wing populist movements in Europe—many commentators noted Spain’s seeming immunity from this phenomenon. Commentators said, “Oh, they remember Franco.” But that is no longer the case. A new, far-right party, Vox, surprised everyone by winning more seats in congress than either Podemos or Ciudadanos (a centrist party that used to be a major player), making it the third-largest party in the country, after the socialists and the old conservative party. Vox conforms to many of the far-right stereotypes: anti-European Union, anti-Islam, anti-femminist, anti-LGBT, and so on. One would have hoped that this strain of Spanish politics had died with Franco. But history is never so tidy.

Well, I’ve given you this whole spiel about the Spanish government, and yet this was not the most interesting part of my weekend. Not by a long-shot. I recently discovered that Madrid’s opera house, the royal theater—a massive building right next to the royal palace—offers discount tickets for people under thirty. This, for the moment, includes me! So this last Sunday I went to the box office two hours before the show, and got myself a good seat for only nineteen euros. Keep in mind that this could have cost me five times as much if I were older. The opera was L’elisir d’Amore, by Donizetti—a kind of farcical Romantic comedy. Let me tell you, I have seldom felt both so fancy and so shabby as when I went to see an opera in a red t-shirt.

Opera is only the tip of the performance iceberg in Madrid. Largely thanks to my girlfriend—who is a theater maniac—I have discovered that Madrid is extremely rich in theater of every kind. To name just a few of the city’s excellent theaters, there is the Teatro Lara, the Teatro del Canal, the Teatro de la Comedia, the Teatro Español, and so on. Dozens and dozens of theaters, some of them small holes in the wall, and some of them elaborately decorated spaces. I have seen Shakespeare’s Othello performed as a sado-masochistic dystopian work, and I have seen classic plays from the Spanish Golden Age performed with perfect correctness. Besides being simply fun, visiting the theater is a wonderful way to practice my Spanish and to immerse myself in Spanish culture.

Like the Opera, many theaters—particularly the fancier ones—offer generous discounts to young people. This is common all over Europe. If you are 26 or under (unfortunately not me, at the moment), you can visit many of Europe’s famous monuments for cheap or even for free. The Prado in Madrid, for example, is free if you are under 27. You can even get discounts on public transportation. Up until the age of 26, you can get a transit pass that includes all of the trains, metros, and buses in the entire Madrid metropolitan area—going all the way to Toledo—for only twenty euros a month. Although I am obviously biased, I think this is a wonderful idea. It certainly helps to encourage young people to take advantage of all of the available cultural experiences they can. My girlfriend, for example, could never have developed such a terrible addiction to the theater if it weren’t so cheap for her. 

The idea of a “youth discount” is one of the many small ways that life in Europe can seem so much more accessible and accommodating than life in the United States. It is certainly difficult to imagine the New York Subway letting you ride the entire network for only 20 bucks a month. And imagine if the Metropolitan Opera offered 19 dollar tickets to anyone under thirty! Now that I’ve discovered these youth tickets, maybe I’ll take the opportunity to become an opera addict. It’s certainly better than being addicted to politics.

Letters from Spain #4: Spanish Banks

Letters from Spain #4: Spanish Banks

Here is episode four of my podcast on life in Spain:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-4-spanish-banks/id1469809686?i=1000456144590

For the transcript, see below:


This week I wanted to concentrate on what I have discovered to be one of the greatest differences between Spain and the United States: Banks. It is a telling contrast, as I hope to show. Most Americans, after opening bank accounts here, are astounded to learn how limited are the hours in which the banks remain open. My local bank back in NY, for example, is open until six o’clock Monday through Friday, and until two in the afternoon on Saturdays. A typical Spanish bank schedule is to be open until two in the afternoon Monday through Friday, and possibly later on Thursdays. Nothing on weekends.

You realize, of course, that this means there is no time that a person with a normal working schedule can visit the bank. Consequently, half the time I visit a bank, most of the clients inside are retired. This is certainly an odd situation. Normally, the limited hours of banks are not really a problem, I admit, since I just need an ATM. But there are times when it is desperately necessary. All government fees, for example, cannot be paid in the government office itself, but must be paid in a bank—don’t ask me why. So if, like me, you need to visit government offices to do the paperwork for your visa, or even if you want to sign up for language classes at the government schools, then you need to figure out when you can visit an open bank.

But the differences between Spanish and American banking cultures goes far deeper. To illustrate this difference, here are two anecdotes.

The first anecdote is about my brother. Upon arriving to Spain and opening a bank account—I won’t say the bank’s name—he transferred money from his American to his Spanish account, in order to withdraw it without fees. Something went wrong with this transfer, though, and he received three times the amount of money he had sent. You can imagine he was very happy. That is, until the bank automatically froze his account.

Now here’s another curious thing about the way banks are set up here. If you have any serious administrative issue to resolve, you can’t just go to any office of your bank. You need to go to the office where you opened your account. So my brother couldn’t go to the bank around the corner. He had to travel half an hour in the metro.

When he arrived, the interaction went something like this.

“There’s a problem with my account,” he said. “Let me see…, no, it’s fine,” the clerk said. “But it’s not working at all.” “There’s no problem with your account.” “My ATM card doesn’t work and there’s too much money in my account.” “Let me see…” At this point the bank clerk got up from his desk and accompanied my brother to the ATM outside, to see for himself that the card didn’t work. Then, after witnessing it, he went back to his chair. “Ah, I see now,” the clerk said. “Your account is frozen.” “Yes,” my brother said. “How do I fix it?” “We’ll take care of it,” the clerk said. “It will be fine in a couple of days.”

This sounds reassuring. But this exact conversation replayed itself four times before the problem could be properly addressed. My brother arrived for several weeks in a row, and each time the clerks would insist that nothing was wrong with his account. Then, they would insist that the problem would be taken care of. The solution, it turned out, was rather complicated. Somehow my brother ended up with money from a Lithuanian bank, and he had to send it back.

What was striking for us Americans was the behavior of the bank staff. How could it be that their computer system did not clearly indicate that there was a problem? Why was it so difficult to figure out how to fix it? And why were the clerks so keen on insisting that there was no problem, or that it would be taken care of very soon? 

As you contemplate these questions, let me tell you an anecdote of my own.

I know that I’ve been in Spain for quite a while, since my debit card, the one that I had gotten during my first weeks in the country, was about to expire. Foreseeing an issue, I went to my local bank a month before its expiration. Trying to avoid any delay, I requested that the card be sent to this office, which is around the corner from my house. That way it would be easy to pick up. The clerk assured me that he had put a notice into the system and it would be there before my old card stopped working. All well and good.

The month rolled around, and I got a text message saying that my new card had been sent. But there was a problem: it had been sent, not to the office near my apartment, but to the original bank where I opened my account. To add to the annoyance, the message sent to me told me the street where the bank was located (I hadn’t been there in years) but not the number. As I learned from Google, there are two of my banks on the same street.

I proceeded to call both banks. After I figured out which was the right one, I asked if they had my card. Two people looked, and told me no. So now I was lost. Was the card sent to my local office after all? The next chance I could, I went to my local office, and I asked the same man if they had my card. “No, it’ll be at the office where you opened your account,” he said. “I called,” I replied, “and it’s not there. Can they send it here?” “It’s better to just go there and get it,” he said. “Well, the problem is that I have a job,” I said, “and I don’t work anywhere near this bank.” “What do you want us to do?” the clerk said, adopting the typical Spanish strategy of throwing the guilt back on you. “You should’ve had the card sent to your apartment.” “Ok,” I said, becoming impatient. “But what should I do now?” “Find a way to go to that bank,” he said.

To emphasize, this bank office closes most days at 2 p.m., and I work until 4:30 p.m. over an horu away. The only chance I had was to go on a Thursday, when the bank closes at 6. If I went straight there from work, I could just barely make it in time. I should also mention that, despite my calling twice and having two separate people check for my card, the office really did have it. The problem was that they filed the card under A, for my middle name Andrew. In Spain people have two last names, you see (one from their father and one from their mother), and no middle names, so the bank staff confused my middle name for one of my last names.

Ok, so my card was going to expire soon. Thursday came around. I had to rush from my job to the office. I left work and walked to the train station. A train was waiting. Perfect. I got on board and began to read. But there was a problem: the train sat for a long time without moving. When it finally did begin to move, it went slowly, and spent a long time parked at each stop. What was going on? It took us fifteen minutes to go three stations, which normally takes less than five minutes. At the next stop the train stopped completely. It was packed with people desperate, like me, to get into Madrid. Nobody knew why the train was stopped, or when the next train would be. Even the security guards in the station had no idea.

Another train pulled up across from us, and then, obeying a herd mentality, everyone switched to the new train. Then the original train began to move. We switched back—hundreds of people rushing across the platform. By this point I gave up and sat down on a bench. The train was too packed to get on, anyway. As I contemplated my next move, the other train, the one without anyone on it, closed its doors and left the station. The crowd erupted in anger. A man began to shriek in a falsetto at the security guards, blaming them for telling everyone to switch trains.

Eventually the security guard began to shout back, and a hilarious screeching contest ensued. I was too amused to feel very worried. Then, without any warning, the doors of the original train—the one with people one it—closed, and the train left the station. Now, this has nothing to do with banks, but I was dumbstruck that the people driving the trains did not simply announce over their PA systems which train was going to leave. Such an absurd situation would never have occurred on the Metro North, where I live in New York. Then again, I later learned that the delay was caused by a strike, which is another thing that seldom happens in my country.

Anyways, I wait for the next train, which slowly makes its way to Madrid. By the time it arrived in Atocha, I only had about twenty minutes. I ran into a cab and told the driver to take me to the bank on X street. In the few minutes of the ride, I asked the driver about her job. She works over twelve hours a day, with hardly a break for meals. And they say Spanish people are lazy! Undoubtedly this gruelling schedule is partly a result of the new competition from other services like Uber. But that’s another story.

The cab pulled up to the bank, I paid and got out. Here at last! I marched into the bank and asked for my card. The man searched for my name in the computer. “Hmmm,” he says. “Your card isn’t here. It’s at the other bank on X street, about eight minutes away.” Of course! I had forgotten that there are two of these banks on the same street! I rushed out of the office, running like mad to the other bank. I got there about seven minutes before they close.

The only clerk at the desk was occupied with somebody. It looked like a rather complicated issue they were resolving. I began to panic. All this for nothing! Yet just when I was on the point of giving in to self-pity, a woman came walking in, talking on her phone. “Ah, sorry,” she said, seeing me. “Ok dad, I’ll call you back.” This, by the way, was another perfect little moment of Spanish culture: a bank clerk happily strolling in after going outside to chat with her dad. To add to this absurd impression, the clerk actually took a call from a friend in the middle of giving me my card. They are a social people, the Spanish.

Well, after going on for such a long, long time about the inconvenience of Spanish banking, I ought to add that I managed to lose this debit card within two weeks of this ordeal. Thus the circle of incompetence is completed. This time, I asked for my replacement card to be sent to me in the mail. It arrived in three days. The banks, as usual, have the last laugh.