Letters from Spain #19: Spanish Eating Culture

Letters from Spain #19: Spanish Eating Culture

The next episode of my Spanish podcast is out, this one about Spanish eating culture. Here’s the link to apple podcasts:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-19-spanish-eating-culture/id1469809686?i=1000469772585

And here’s the video:

See the transcript below:


Hello,

It’s been pretty hard for me to motivate myself to do this podcast lately, now that everything is so crazy. After all, this podcast is about life in Spain, and life in Spain has basically stopped thanks to the coronavirus. The streets are empty, the cafés are closed. Here in Spain, we’re not even allowed to go on walks or exercise in the open air, unlike people are in most other countries. So I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of Spanish life lately. 

But all this isolation has given me a lot of time to think. And the lockdowns being carried out all around the world are creating rather interesting conditions to compare countries side by side. The way people will react to them is partly a result of culture, I think. To be honest, I’m quite surprised at how Spain is reacting to the lockdown. In my experience, Spanish people are being quite cooperative. The streets are mostly empty and I haven’t really seen any disobedience with my own eyes. It’s bringing out a sense of solidarity in Spanish culture that I’ve never seen before. Everyone seems quite willing to do their part. And every night, at 8 pm, everyone gathers on their balconies and cheers for the doctors and nurses. Some people are even cheering for the police!

I doubt that Americans will adjust so easily to a lockdown. Though they’re both recognizably Western cultures, I think Americans are more concerned with notions of freedom and rights than people are in Spain (where democracy is younger), and so I doubt many Americans will be comfortable with having police cars patrol their neighborhoods, giving big fines to anyone disobeying the orders. Speaking for myself, I admit that it does make me feel queasy. But maybe I’m wrong, and the crisis will bring out a sense of solidarity and cooperation in America, too. After all, I didn’t predict that Spanish people—who love going outside and being social—would adjust so easily to being inside. 

Now that we’re seeing Italy and Spain hit hard by this disease, it makes me wonder if culture has something to do with this. In this podcast I’ve repeatedly talked about the Spaniards love of proximity. This is true on every level. They like high density living, they like getting real close when they talk to each other, they like crowded bars. Spanish people just want to be close. Also, physical contact is much more permissible here, and kissing and handshaking is done ritualistically. Another interesting point to consider is that Spaniards have a lot of cross-generational contact. Lots of people live with their parents well into their twenties, and Spanish people keep in very close touch with their elderly parents and grandparents, often going to visit them every other weekend. Unfortunately, all of these aspects of Spanish culture may have made them more susceptible.

Well, in this podcast I don’t want to speculate about the virus. Rather, I want to pay homage to one of my favorite aspects of Spanish culture: its eating culture. This is one of the things from my daily life that I really miss, and I very much hope that we can beat this virus as quickly as possible, so we can get back to the good life of food and drink.

There are some obvious differences between Spanish and American eating cultures. The most obvious is probably just the schedule. In Spain, you eat late. Typical time for lunch is 2-3, and for dinner it can be from 9 all the way to 11. Another obvious difference is the quantity of food consumed in each meal. In America we have pretty big breakfasts, medium-sized lunches, and big dinners. In Spain, breakfast is usually light, lunch is very big, and dinner is medium-sized. In general, portions in Spain are quite a bit smaller than they are in the US, but that’s not saying much I suppose.

To me, the most important differences in the eating culture aren’t the times or the portions, but the restaurant and bar culture. I think Spain has a claim to having the world’s greatest bar culture, and this is for a few reasons. One reason is that there are just so many. Spanish people love being in public, and the number of eating establishments reflects that. Madrid, for example, has over 15,000 bars and restaurants, which translates to 1 for every 211 residents. This means that everyone in the entire city could literally go to a bar or a restaurant at the same time, and there would be enough space. And the city basically does do that.* On any day, at any given hour, there are tons of people sitting in bars, cafés, and restaurants.

Becauses eating establishments are so common and so fundamental to Spanish life, they have a very different aesthetic as they do in America. In America we go to restaurants or bars on weekends, holidays, or for special occasions. For this reason, they put more effort into creating a special ambience with music and decoration. Many bars and restaurants in Madrid are not like that. They are bare-boned, no-frills (as one well-known website calls them). They’re just for hanging out. A big advantage is that there’s often no music, so you can have a decent conversation. Also, the lights are usually not dimmed, so you can see the people around you. The ambience is more like your own living room. 

Another huge difference is the lack of a tipping culture. Americans don’t really realize how much tipping affects our eating experience. Aside from the simple fact of having to calculate and pay the tip—which I find pretty annoying, now that I’m used to not doing it—tipping has a big effect on the entire experience. Waiters are motivated to be ingratiating, accommodating, but also fast. They want you in and out as fast as comfortably possible, since more people in and out translates into more money for them. And they will bend over backwards to give you good service. In Spain, it’s not like that at all. Most places don’t care if you stay there all night. And getting the attention of a Spanish waiter is famously difficult. They don’t have to pretend to love you.

Personally, on the whole, I think it’s much, much better. I don’t like being rushed out of restaurants. And I find this whole ritual of deciding how much a waiter “deserves” to be demeaning. I think waiters should just be paid a living wage so they can do their jobs serving food without having to be actors, too. I can never entirely relax in an American restaurant because of the pressure I feel to finish, the constant questions of “Would you like anything else?” and “Is everything alright?” In a Spanish restaurant, you can be as comfortable as in your own living room.

Another interesting difference between Spanish and American eating establishments is that Spanish bars and restaurants can often be quite generic. Since eating out is sort of a special experience in America, we expect eat restaurant to have something special, something that sets it apart. But in Spain, where eating out is as common as eating in, restaurants can be pretty standard. I like this a lot, since you always know what there is and what you can get, no matter where you are. And it makes ordering a lot easier. For example, you don’t need to specify the beer you want. The beer is standard, and you just specify how big a glass you want. Also, you don’t need to choose the wine from an elaborate wine menu. You can just order “white” or “red” and you get the standard wine. It’s actually kind of liberating not to have to make so many choices. I’m not a connoisseur, after all.

The menus from Spanish restaurants can also be really very similar. That’s because, in Spain, the eating culture is much more based on a national tradition than it is in America. There are national dishes here and that’s what everyone eats most of the time. What sets restaurants apart is not anything special on their menu, but just the quality of a typical Spanish dish. One place might have really good paella, for example, and another place has really good tortilla. The funny thing is, if you haven’t had much Spanish food, you might not be able to appreciate the difference. But once you’ve eaten a lot of it, you realize that it’s worth looking for a really good tortilla.

To sum up, the greatest thing about Spanish eating culture is that it’s for everyone, all the time. It’s a beautiful part of Spanish life, and I think it is an important and even a fundamental part of Spanish life. I loved it before this crisis, and now that I am deprived of it I love it even more. So consider this my homage, my tribute, to a special part of the culture that I hope we will be able to return to as soon as possible.


*I made a mistake in the recorded version of this podcast, saying 1 bar per 21 residents. In reality, not every resident could go to a bar at once.

The Cathedral of Chartres

The Cathedral of Chartres

Europe is full of cathedrals. Some people weary of them quickly. After all, you get the basic idea after a couple visits: In front there is an impressive façade, with several magnificent doors; then the inside is composed of a nave and the two aisles that lead to the main altar; and of course you have the choir, the transept, and all the little chapels on the periphery. It is the same layout every time, with only minor exceptions and variations. And, of course, the artistic styles are fairly uniform, too. There are the Romanesque and the Gothic styles, and all of the standard tropes of Christianity: Jesus, Mary, the prophets, the evangelists, and all the various angels and saints. 

But there are those, such as myself, who only grow more fascinated the more cathedrals they see. In fact, I think that it is only possible to appreciate a cathedral once you have acquired a certain background. Even if styles are fairly uniform across Europe, the level of execution certainly is not; and it takes some experience to tell the difference. But cathedrals are more than mere exercises in art, of course. They represent the greatest monuments of Europe’s most deeply spiritual age. Each one is suffused with a sensibility that is almost entirely foreign to the modern world: a pervading sense of the nothingness of this life in comparison with the life to come. Unlike the palace of Versailles—a building devoted to earthly power and splendor—a cathedral uses earthly art to evoke something otherworldly. Thus, while I find the effect of most palaces to be rather deadening, I always find a visit to a cathedral uplifting. Nowhere is this more the case than at Chartres.

Chartres is a fair-sized town in the vicinity of Paris. Trains leave several times a day from the the capital’s Montparnasse station, and the ride takes a little over an hour. For whatever reason, I had to struggle with the ticket machine, which did not seem to wish to give me a ticket. My uncle told me that he also needed help buying a ticket to Chartres, but none of the French people could understand him when he said “Chartres.” (I had the exact same situation with my Airbnb host. French people can be very particular when it comes to pronunciation. And “Chartres” is not easy to say correctly.) In any case, all of us ended up getting to the city in time.

Though doubtless once a beautiful medieval town, most of Chartres was sadly destroyed during the Second World War. The cathedral’s survival and preservation is little short of miraculous, considering the circumstances. Even if most of Chartres’s medieval architecture was burned or blown away, the town still has a robust memory of their heritage. When I arrived the people were having their annual medieval festival. There were archery contests, parades of drummers and flag-twirlers, a concert of period music, and even obstacle courses for the children. All the vendors were dressed in the appropriate medieval rags and caps. It was a lovely time.

But unfortunately my train tickets did not leave me with much time to appreciate the life of the town. I wanted to spend as much time in the cathedral as possible. My hope was to get a tour from the great Malcolm Miller, a famous scholar of the cathedral who has been giving tours since the late 50s, but that was not to be. When I walked in the cathedral, I had just missed an assembling tour group (not with him), and I decided to settle on the standard audioguide.

I am getting ahead of myself, however. First I should describe the cathedral’s distinctive profile. Chartres is immediately recognizable for its two non-matching towers. The north tower (on the left, facing the building) is quite notably taller than the south tower; and its style is also quite different. This is because a fire necessitated the rebuilding of the north tower, which was completed in the early 1500s. Stylistically, then, it is more recent, partaking of the flamboyant gothic. While superficially more resplendent, it is actually the less interesting of the two towers, as it is rather like that of many other cathedrals. The right tower, on the other hand, is an architectural marvel in its own right. It features a sloping octagonal stone spire, constructed without any interior framework to hold it up. This is quite an amazing feat, when you consider that it was completed in 1150. Even now, there is not a bigger stone spire anywhere.

The first impression, upon walking into the cathedral, is rather stark. Compared with the great Spanish cathedrals—Toledo, Seville, or Santiago—the cathedral of Chartres can seem, at first glance, disappointingly empty. Toledo’s cathedral, for example, is stuffed to the brim with every sort of artwork. The cathedral also lacks the ostentatious splendor of so many Italian churches—shimmering with color and gold. Chartres’ appeal is quite different. It is the beauty of form, line, and light. It is the architecture of purity. The walls, arches, and vaults are arranged with such exactitude that the final effect is like that of a brilliant mathematical proof: the manifestation of divine logic.

Admittedly, this sensation of purity is partly a result of a thorough cleaning that the cathedral underwent about ten years ago. Centuries of soot had accumulated on its walls, turning them a dusky gray. During the restoration, the walls and even the statues were cleaned, making everything appear an ethereal white. This cleaning was not without its controversy. Part of the romance of visiting old buildings, after all, is the overpowering sensation of age, the palpable weight of time. Making the buildings look as good as new does radically alter the effect. However, the decision was defended as being necessary to the building’s preservation. For my part, the restoration did bring out the extreme lightness of the structure.

The audio guide first asks you to step back outside to examine the front portal. As with so many cathedrals, it consists of three doorways—one large one in the center, flanked by two smaller ones—lushly decorated with biblical figures. Appropriately enough, Christ sits enthroned in the center of the affair, surrounded by representations of the four evangelists. The most charming sculptures are not in the tympanums above the doors, however, but in the jambs separating the doorways. These elongated men and women are some of the sculptural masterpieces of the gothic age: they possess a certain majesty, mixed with a naive charm that I find difficult to describe. Even the decorative carvings between the human figures are varied and beautiful.

It is worth taking a closer look at these sculptures to spot the tiny personifications of the seven liberal arts (the trivium with the quadrivium). This marks the epoch when Chartres was at the forefront of European intellectual life. Before the time of universities, cathedrals were major intellectual centers; and the School of Chartres played a major role in shaping the scholastic thought that would dominate the European mind for centuries. The School of Chartres was distinct for its great emphasis on natural science, which was not always highly valued at the time. Indeed, you can see the scholars’ interest in both science and antiquity in one tiny figure, believed to represent the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. As Lawrence M. Principe said in his history of science, the middle ages are unfairly maligned as benighted. 

Notice the personification of the liberal arts in the lower corners.

As soon as you walk inside, you must turn your attention to the windows. The stained-glass windows of Chartres are simply extraordinary. The quality of craftsmanship and art is excellent; and there is just so much of it. Normally, only a few windows receive the lavish treatment of elaborate pictorial representations, the rest being taken up with basic patterns. Not in Chartres: every window is bursting with detail. Describing even a fraction of these windows would be an enormous task. The audio guide had me walk around the entire length of the building, pausing before each set of windows, pointing out the most distinctive features. Each one merited close examination; but there are so many that you must budget your time and energy.

Some windows deserve special mention. The three rose windows—enormous circular panels above the three entrances—are magnificent, if difficult to see in detail from the ground. Indeed, many of the panels contain so many scenes—such as the Life of Christ, or the entire genealogy of Mary—that they overwhelm the viewer with information. One exception to this is the so-called Blue Virgin, a large representation of the Virgin with the Christ child. It is a wonderful piece of work, with Mary enshrouded in a glowing blue robe, while angels fly all about her. Though a difficult and expensive medium, Chartres shows that stained glass is quite the equal of painting or sculpture in its power.

My favorite windows were those around the aisles. These features several different panels, typically with a Biblical story occupying the main panel, with secondary scenes in the periphery. Curiously, many of these windows show craftsmen and laborers of different professions in the lower panel, such as shoemakers or blacksmiths. This is unusual in gothic art, and the guide explained that it was because the local guilds financed the windows. Recent research has thrown doubt upon this explanation, however, since it is unlikely that the guilds had nearly enough money. These scenes were perhaps included more as a gesture on behalf of the church, as a way of symbolizing its universal nature. Either way, it does give the cathedral a curiously democratic aspect.

Notice the craftsman on the bottom.

The windows deserve far more attention than this. But I will let the images do the talking. Let us move on. 

Chartres’s main altar would be glorious in another setting, but it seems somewhat out of place in the heavily gothic atmosphere of Chartres. It is an ornate, neoclassical sculpture in white marble of the assumption of Mary. It is clearly the work of a different age: the figures are carefully realistic and engaged in a dramatic action. The choir stall is another product of a later age (having been made in the 16th to 18th century), but it fits the aesthetic of the church rather better. It is beautifully carved with an endless number of details, providing a sculptural counterpoint to the complex windows above.

One of Chartres’s most recognizable features is the labyrinth. This takes the form of a circle, with one single path running from the beginning to the end point. It is meant as a symbol of the Christian’s path from sin to salvation, one long, winding road from the periphery to the center, a kind of miniature pilgrimage. (And the cathedral is, of course, part of the network of pilgrimage paths that lead to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain.) Simply as a design the labyrinth is quite lovely; and the more one examines it, the longer it seems. I wonder how long it would take to walk the entire distance.

The last stops on my visit were the north and south portals. The first is dedicated to the Virgin and the second to Christ’s crucifiction. In another context, virtually all of the sculptures in both doorways would be considered masterful by itself; in Chartres they are further extensions of the cathedral’s majesty. I was particularly taken with a group of Christian martyrs in the south portal, each of them holding a symbol of their identity. (I could not hope to identify the vast majority.) Though rather stiff by the standards of Renaissance sculpture, the bodies have a certain tension and dynamism, as if they are all on the lookout, that I found very appealing.

Thus concluded my audioguide’s visit to Chartres. Aware of the cathedral’s reputation, I was fully prepared to be awed; and I was not disappointed. But there were still a few delights in store for me. Right as I was about to walk out of the cathedral for the last time, a man began to give a lecture on organ music. He was seated high up above, in front of the keyboard, and speaking to an audience via a microphone; his image was projected onto a screen. I could not understand anything he said, since it was French, but it was obvious that he was giving some sort of a lecture on organ music, since every now and then he would demonstrate his point by playing the organ. It sounded fantastic. There are few more powerful feelings than hearing the ancient pipes of an organ resounding through the cavernous cathedral.

As I emerged onto the street, I was treated to another kind of music. Set up right in front of the cathedral, a group of four men were performing medieval songs on period instruments—simple jigs, mostly, with bouncing rhythms. It was quite a contrast to the somber and magnificent sound of the organ from a moment ago; yet it was a charming way to leave the atmosphere of the cathedral. Cathedrals exist to touch us in special moments, when we are able to see our own lives as very small in relation to something enormous that is above and all around us. This feeling engenders a sense of calm and even of detachment. Yet we cannot live our lives this way. We need rhythm, emotion, passion, too, if we want the full range of the human experience. The fullest life of all will contain moments of both passion and calm. And this is just what I experienced during my visit to Chartres

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Letters from Spain #18: Spanish Cities

Letters from Spain #18: Spanish Cities

Here is the next episode of my Spanish podcast. This one is about the joy of Spanish cities (when there isn’t a pandemic, of course).

Click below for the apple podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-18-spanish-cities/id1469809686?i=1000468584456

Here is the video:

See the transcript below:


Hello,

It seems that I suddenly have an awful lot of time to work with. Because of the surge of coronavirus cases in Madrid, all schools have been closed, and I’ve been sent home for at least two weeks. On Friday they ordered all the shops and restaurants to be closed. And today was the first day of a nation-wide lockdown. Nobody is allowed on the streets, except to go to work, buy medicine or groceries. I think the Spanish people are mostly taking this well. True, there’s no toilet paper left in any of the shops. But people are keeping their spirits up during this difficult time. Every day, at eight o’clock, people have been gathering on their balconies to cheer the hardworking medical personnel. 

It’s a pretty surreal feeling. A few weeks ago, coronavirus was just a thing happening in China. Two weeks ago, it was an Italian problem. Now it’s totally global. 

Anyways, so far I am safe and sound. Meanwhile, the city of Madrid looks very, very different. It’s a complete ghost-town now. The precautions necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus go totally against the grain of Spanish culture. As I’ve talked about before, Spanish people love to be outside, to be in public, and to congregate. They greet each other with kisses and have no issues with physical contact. These qualities are—under normal circumstances—what make Spanish cities so great. In fact, I’d say that this is one of the most charming things about visiting Spain: that the city centers are always bustling with life. 

A big part of this, I think, has to do with the layout of the cities itself. Every major Spanish city predates the invention of the car by centuries, and so the historical parts of these cities are always easily walkable. Really, the invention of the car was bad for city life. You can see the evidence of this almost anywhere in America, as well as in the parts of cities in Europe that have been built to accommodate car travel. On the outskirts of Madrid you enter into a kind of industrial park, where all the buildings are low-lying and spread out. When you don’t have any motivation to put things closeby, you also don’t have motivation to build up in any one place. The result is very ugly—endless asphalt, shabby buildings, and nobody on the street.

I think you can clearly see the bad effect that the car has had on city planning if you examine a place where I worked for a long time: Rivas-Vaciamadrid. Now, I don’t want to insult Rivas, because the people who live there are really quite lovely. But I think the town itself embodies everything that I dislike about modern cities. The major problem is the zoning. All the parts of Rivas are split up into discrete zones, which contain only one type of building. There are zones for single-residency houses, zones for apartment buildings, and zones for restaurants. Most of the shopping is concentrated in one giant mall. The result is deadening. There is hardly any variation to relieve your eye, since all the houses and buildings look exactly the same. 

Even worse, compared to other Spanish cities, there is very little life on the street. I often had to walk from private class to private class, and I wouldn’t see more than three people during the whole time. It’s a place built for cars. There aren’t any good places to gather. True, Rivas has some big parks, but in my experience these were often empty, too. Personally I found it a bit depressing. (Again, this isn’t a reflection on the people of Rivas, who are very nice!) Going from the endlessly similar neighborhoods of the new part of Rivas to the tiny older center was always a relief. There, at least, there are some bars and cafes, and a central square with some benches.

The problem was diagnosed by Jane Jacobs. Cities are vibrant when they are mixed-use. That is, when there are lots of different sorts of things in the same neighborhood, there are that many more reasons for people to be walking on the street. And when people are on the street, the streets become that much more interesting and safe to be in. It naturally reduces the crime rate (at least for violent crime, maybe not pickpocketing), since there are always bystanders, and in general it is one of the chief delights of city life. After all, one of the constant fascinations of living in the city is seeing the human zoo on display.

A high population density can also support a wider variety of businesses, which is another of the great pleasures of city life. First and foremost, there are the cafes, restaurants, and bars. Nowadays they are much emptier than usual, but most of the time they are packed, especially on sunny days like today. I honestly wonder what is the furthest you could go in Spain from an eating establishment. You could be lost in the southern deserts and still be able to order a beer nearby. The omnipresence of restaurants is one of the great joys of Spanish life. If you want a coffee, a glass of wine, or a bite to eat, you can choose from any of the three to six establishments in eyesight. You may think I’m joking, but Spain is the country with the highest density of bars in the world. To give an example, the southern province of the country, Andalucia, has more bars than Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Ireland combined. (And by the way, Andalucia has less than half as many people as these four places.)

Another thing that’s not in short supply in Spain are the supermarkets. My neighborhood is a pretty good example of this. Within a ten minute walk from my front door there are 14 supermarkets. Fourteen! And many of them are quite big. These fourteen supermarkets represent 7 different brands, some of them Spanish, one French (Carrefour), and one German (Lidl). And this is not to mention the many butchers, vegetable shops, and bakery shops nearby. Just the other day I wandered across a very modern-looking butcher shop, which had every kind of meat you could wish for. There, I finally found a type of Spanish sausage I particularly like, called “crioll chorizo” (though the name doesn’t really make sense). My point is that you’re pretty spoiled when it comes to food selection, even if some things that are common in the US are much less common in Spain (like broccoli rabe, which I’ve never seen!).

There are two types of shops common in Spain that are often run by immigrants. One is the humble kebab shop, the most popular fast food option in Europe. I actually live on top of a kebab shop, and the smell of the spiced meats wafts up all day, giving me strange cravings. The other one is called an alimentación, which is sort of a corner shop where you buy snacks, basic amenities, and alcohol. (In Spain you don’t need a liquor license, so everywhere has booze.) Because these sorts of shops are often owned by Chinese people, they are usually called chinos by Spaniards—and I’m kind of unclear whether this is considered, or should be considered, offensive. Chino, by the way, is the standard way to refer to a Chinese person or a Chinese restaurant, of which there are a fair number in Spain.

Speaking of my own neighborhood, what else should I mention? I think by any standard there is an impressive range of businesses. There are several sports stores, for example, and they are not chains. There is a nice little one up the street that has good deals on sweatpants and sweatshirts, and a big one around the corner that has everything from fishing rods to weight lifting machines. Speaking of lifting weights, there’s also a gym—again, not a chain—a few blocks away, where my brother likes to go. And Retiro park is just five minutes up the street, where I like to go running.

Really, the longer I’ve lived in this neighborhood—which is called Pacifico—the more I have come to appreciate it. Though it isn’t a big place to go out at night, it’s a historical neighborhood that is right next to the central train station, Atocha. And I think it embodies a lot of what is good in Spanish cities. The streets are not too big and not too long, which allows for a high density of shops within easy walking distance. As a result, while usually not crowded, there’s hardly a moment when the streets are empty. A few years ago Pacifico was a sleepy part of the city, with lots of older folks. Nowadays the neighborhood seems to be gentrifying (and, no doubt, I am myself contributing to this process). There is an axe-throwing business, where you can take turns hurling a hatchet at a wooden target; there is a fancy dried-goods store, with all these different types of pastas, flours, and exotic spices; and there are lots of bio shops with organic produce and different medicinal herbs. There’s even a big technology store, and a cool book store that also serves coffee, carrot cake, and craft beer. (A specialized craft beer store just moved out of the neighborhood.)

Well, anyway, I think you get my point. There’s a lot of stuff in my neighborhood, and I think this is typical of many neighborhoods in Spain: they are mixed-use, walkable, and well connected with public transportation. In a way they are the antithesis of places that are built around cars. And I think that the result speaks for itself: it is more attractive, more interesting, and all around more livable. There’s another added bonus to living in a Spanish city: the history. Even in my quiet neighborhood, there are some important historical buildings to visit. Quite closeby is the Engine Hall, which is a kind of power station with three massive diesel generators, built for the first generation of the Madrid metro. Nowadays it is a free museum.

Not very far is the Royal Tapestry Factory. This is just one of many royal factories, which were established in the 1700s by the Bourbon monarchs in an effort to emulate the French mercantile model. These are basically state-run organizations that made luxury goods for the royal family. The glass factory, for example, is in the town of La Granja, near one of Spain’s great palaces. The tapestry factory is a brick building with a big smokestack, where some of the finest neoclassical tapestries were made for the Spanish court. No less an artist than Goya made designs for these tapestries, and his original paintings are hanging on the top floor of the Prado. Nowadays, the factory is run by a non-profit, I believe.

Quite close are two more historical landmarks: the Royal Basilica of Our Lady of Atocha, and the Pantheon of Illustrious Men. The first is an important church that is home to one of the many venerated images of the Virgin. The basilica has long been a center of religious and royal life in the city. Bartolomé de las Casas is even buried here—the monk who was one of the first Spaniards to raise awareness about the cruelty of colonization in the Americas. Nextdoor is the Pantheon, which used to be a convent. In the 1800s it was seized from the church and turned into a kind of celebration of civic Spaniards, with elaborate funerary monuments distributed around the old cloister. It’s actually quite a beautiful place, even though I’ve never heard of any of the people buried there. 

Hmmm, it seems that I started a podcast about Spanish city planning, and ended up just talking about how much I like my neighborhood. But I do think that my neighborhood illustrates the ways that a city can be a joyous place. And personally I think that it is a much healthier and saner way to live than having everything spread out, like they’re on little islands, making a car necessary. Cars are convenient things, but you can’t have a car community. I think modern city planners should take a look at these historical neighborhoods and do their best to recreate them. Otherwise, we’ll be condemned to a life of seclusion and isolation, cooped up in our homes, driving from place to place—like we all have coronavirus all the time! It’s not a good way to live.

Unfortunately, even the good neighborhoods that exist are in constant risk of being rendered unlivable by rising rents. And this is a consequence of real estate investing and gentrification. Perhaps it is significant that Vienna, which is often considered the most livable city in the world, has extensive public housing projects—for almost half of its population. At the moment, Madrid’s own housing market is pretty unregulated, and I think this can easily lead to a situation of average, everyday people being pushed out of the center into the outskirts. This is a hollowing out that has already affected places like London and New York, since it basically kills the liveliness that makes these places so attractive to begin with—making them neighborhoods of empty homes owned by wealthy people, or else Airbnbs, with small businesses being bought out by big chains. Whatever the government can do to prevent this kind of situation, I’d welcome it.

Thank you.

Letters from Spain #17: European Travel

Letters from Spain #17: European Travel

My new podcast is out, this one on European Travel. (Yes, a little silly during the coronavirus crisis, but I didn’t plan it this way.) For the apple podcast, click here:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-17-european-travel/id1469809686?i=1000467987733

Here is the YouTube video:

For the (loose) transcript, see below:


Hello,

Well, my podcast this week has been delayed because of a trip. It was my first international trip of the school year, and it was great. My brother and I went to Kraków, Poland—a lovely city, with a well-preserved historical center. Relatively nearby are two major tourist attractions: Auschwitz (very depressing) and the Wieliczka salt mines (very impressive). But maybe the best part of the trip was the food. Every dish was heavy, plentiful, and delicious. Even the coffee and the beer was good. And I was reminded how generally pleasant European travel can be. Arguably, it’s the best part of living here.

Admittedly, it seems like an awkward time to be writing a podcast about traveling, because of the coronavirus outbreak. Just last week, I had a brief layover in Milan, and now Milan is under quarantine, with the rest of Northern Italy. And I just received notice that Madrid will be shutting down schools for the next two weeks. Two weeks! What will I do with myself? Next thing I know, we’ll be under quarantine, too. So I guess it’s not the best time to talk about European travel, now that everyone is cancelling their vacations. However, this crisis will pass, and Europe will once again open its doors to travelers. So here I go!

The major difference between traveling in Europe and in the United States is that Europe is packed with variety. Traveling to another country is like traveling to another state—cheap, easy, and quick. You can get on a plane and, in an hour or two, get out in a place where the people speak an entirely different language, eat different food, where the architecture, music, art, and even the landscape itself is totally different. The whole continent of Europe isn’t bigger than the US. And when you consider that most people travel to Western Europe, you’re talking about an area of land about the size of one American coast.

The main reason why so much cultural variety is packed into such a comparatively small space is, simply, the amount of history that has gone by. America is one big country, and a young country, too; so a lot of the country can seem extremely homogeneous, since it is the result of rapid expansion. And a lot of this expansion happens when means of transport and communication were relatively rapid. Meanwhile, Europe grew out of ancient populations, and virtually every little town and city was relatively isolated for long periods of time. Cultural differences grow and accumulate during all this time; and this is why, in Europe, every region has its own traditional dishes, traditional dances, traditional music, and so on. This is true both within countries and between countries: there is an awful lot of regional variation packed into a relatively small space.

This naturally makes traveling in Europe quite endlessly fascinating. Poland, for example, is not too far away from Spain, but it is absolutely unmistakably distinct. And this goes far deeper than surface features like food and architecture. The two countries have been shaped by quite different historical forces, and so even their cultures have notable contrasts, such as their concepts of personal space and their senses of humor. But I don’t want to overstate my case and argue that they have nothing in common, either. Both Poland and Spain have been heavily influenced by capitalism, for example, and they have both gone through periods of totalitarian rule and repression in the twentieth century.

So the really fascinating thing, then, is seeing Europe as a kind of variation on a theme. Every country has churches, basilicas, and cathedrals, but they all build them somewhat differently. Every country has art museums and monuments to historical events, and these are all intimately interconnected. To give just one example, the beautiful gothic altar in Krakow’s St. Mary’s Basilica was sculpted by a German from Nuremberg, another city that was previously a part of the Habsburg Empire. (The Habsburgs controlled Spain for a while, too, to give you another example of their historical parallels.) 

So national borders are real markers of difference, but they’re also fluid. Perhaps the most famous Pole in history, Nicholas Copernicus, studied for a time in Italy, and published his book with the help of German Protestants. Frederic Chopin, born in Poland, spent most of his professional life in French, as did the Spaniard Picasso and the Dutchman Van Gogh. The more you travel around Europe, then, the more you see a rich, interconnected story unfolding across this varied landscape. In short, it’s very cool.

Anyways, even if you don’t care much about history or art, there’s another factor that makes European travel so appealing: it’s cheap. Part of the reason for this cheapness are the low-cost flights. Sometimes you can find good deals are more traditional airlines, like Iberia; and that may be the best option. But often travelers looking to save money fly with EasyJet or Ryanair. I have a lot of experience with Ryanair. I used them for my outbound and inbound flights to Poland. They are far from being my favorite airline, but their prices are pretty irresistible. My flight to Poland, for example, cost me less than 20 euros. And that’s for a three-and-a-half hour flight! 

Of course, you get what you pay for. There are no amenities on Ryanair. The seats are uncomfortable, there are no screens to watch movies, no plug to charge your phone, and of course food is not included. Besides this, you need to pay extra if you want to choose your seat or even if you want to take a bag for the overhead compartment. Since I bought the cheapest ticket, I had to fit all of my stuff under the seat in front of me. Worst of all may be the advertising. On every Ryanair flight the airstewarts give long, uninspired, rambling advertisements of various products—food, perfume, lottery tickets, and even model planes —over the plane’s crackling PA system. And they do this in two or three languages, so it takes a long time. I’ve never seen anyone buy any of this junk, so in a way it feels like punishment for paying cheap prices.

As much as I like to rag on Ryanair, the truth is that I wouldn’t have been able to travel so much if it weren’t for this infamous company. There are a couple other companies and services that also help in my eternal quest to save money. A basic one is Skyscanner, a website that reliably tells you the cheapest flights. I also have used Blablacar a lot, which is a ride sharing service. Basically, let’s say I’m planning on driving from Seville to Madrid. I can put up an announcement on Blablacar and charge riders to accompany on this trip. The driver can charge whatever they want, but typically the prices are quite a bit lower than, say, paying for a high-speed train. Of course, I felt a little hesitant at first about the prospect of getting into a car with a stranger. But the website is quite well regulated and I haven’t had any truly bad experiences. It’s also a good way to find people to chat with, if you’re trying to improve your language skills.

There is one more service I use that, I admit, makes me feel a bit guilty: Airbnb. The reason that I have some scruples about Airbnb is that it can have a potentially bad effect on the housing market of wherever you’re visiting. It’s often more profitable for landlords to rent their flats short-term to visitors than long-term to locals, and this limits the supply of available residences and drives prices up. In areas with heavy tourism, this can make it almost unliveably expensive. So there is that downside. On the other hand, hotels and even youth hostels can be much, much more expensive than Airbnbs—prohibitively so, for me. In any case, I hope I am reducing the corrosive effect of Airbnbs by normally renting individual rooms (which couldn’t be rented to locals anyway) rather than whole apartments. In Prague, for example, I stayed in a little room in the apartment of a family, far outside the center. This is not only better for the city, but also in my experience more fun, since the idea is to be with locals anyways.

Well, those are my tips. If you do some searching, you can find ways to travel around Europe on an incredibly short budget. And you get a lot for money, since there are so many things to see and do, all over the place. If you’re young—younger than 26, in most cases—then you can get added discounts on museums and monuments. Added to all this, there is also the convenience of the European Union. Now that I’m being paid in Euros, I don’t have to worry about conversion rates if I go to Italy, Germany, or Ireland. There is also something that’s called the Schengen Zone: a zone of countries where no visa or even passport is needed at the border. Flying from Spain to Italy, then, is legally the same as taking a domestic flight. You just walk right into the country.

Europe’s open borders are something that they should be very proud of, I think. It is a level of international trust and cooperation that is unique in history, I believe. And as a result of this, it is quite common for Europeans to have international experience. Though there is at least one case in which all this may backfire: during an pandemic. Now the virus is in every major European country, with over a thousand cases in Spain. And I’ve just heard that all of Italy is on lock-down. I really hope they don’t lock down Spain… 

Anyways, I’m getting a bit off topic. My major point is that Europe is great for travel. There is a lot to see and do, it’s easy and cheap to get around, and borders are almost non-existent. And Europeans themselves take advantage of this. Blessed with lots of vacation time (unlike the United States, where vacation is entirely unregulated), Europeans in general take lots of trips: both within their countries and to neighboring lands. Indeed, one of the big reasons that so many people want to learn English is because of the travel industry. In a continent of so many different nations and languages, English is the only Lengua Franca available.

Now, does all this traveling help to make Europeans wiser, more tolerant, more cosmopolitan? The answer is not immediately clear to me. It’s certainly possible to travel and not learn anything. Go to any touristy area, and you’ll see what I mean. All the food is junk food (a lot of it from America), and everything for sale is junk, too. Many people travel, take a selfie with a famous landmark, stay in a hotel, and then go home. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily. It’s fun. But does it lead to anything more? I think it does, or at least I hope it does. Otherwise, what on earth am I doing? Just having fun?

Thank you.

Versailles and its Gardens

Versailles and its Gardens

Europe is full of palaces. There are so many, in fact, that the persistent traveler can grow a little weary of them. After all, each palace tends to offer the same sorts of attractions: fine furniture, richly decorated rooms, expansive architecture. You get the idea. But even if you are quite uninterested in the pomp of power or the fineries of royal life, there is one palace that must be visited: Versailles. Built for Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King, it is the prototype of virtually all of the palaces built afterwards. From Spain to Austria, Versailles has been scrupulously imitated. It is, in other words, the palace of palaces.

The palace of Versailles is not within the city of Paris itself, but situated in the suburbs. Like Philip II with El Escorial, Louis XIV wanted to be away from the city, in an environment completely under his control. This decision did make the palace slightly inconvenient for the modern traveler to visit. Fortunately, Versailles is well-connected by all forms of public transportation. The cheapest and easiest way to get to Versailles from Paris is on the RER (Regional Express Trains), which stops quite close to the palace. This was not an option when I visited, however, as there was a train strike that day (hardly a rare occurrence in France). Yet this strike only affected these local trains. Long-distance trains from Montparnasse station also have a stop in Versailles (Versailles – Chantiers). This is the option I used.

Even though the walk from Versailles – Chantiers is slightly longer than from the RER stop, the strike worked to my advantage. There were significantly fewer people in the palace than usual. This is not to say that I had the place to myself. Versailles is typically packed; many visitors complain that the crowds ruin the experience. When I visited there were quite a lot of visitors (aside from the visitors by trains, there are dozens of tour buses lined up in the parking lot outside the palace), but not enough to make the place suffocating or claustrophobic. The palace was just mildly stuffy.

If you spend a few minutes to walk around the town of Versailles, you will notice that it looks rather different from the center of Paris. Partially this is because the streets follow a grid layout—a dead giveaway of the Versailles’ past. Before Louis XIV decided to move his court to this spot, the only thing on the land was a small village and a royal hunting lodge. In other words, it was mainly wilderness. The town took shape quickly around the palace; and like the royal gardens, it has been meticulously planned. This is not unusual for palace towns. The town of Aranjuez in Spain, for example, also follows a grid plan—a striking exception to the normal chaos of Spanish towns.

As you approach the enormous palace, several things come into view. There is Louis XIV heroically mounted on a stallion, sporting appropriately regal headwear. Immediately beyond this image of royal power are the tour buses, which give an even greater image of the power of international tourism. Then there is the line. When I visited, it was several hundred feet long, spanning almost the entire length of the palace’s front. Beyond this impatient mass of humankind there is the ornate fence and the even more ornate façade. Both are bright and gold; Louis XIV did not want to leave any of his wealth to the imagination. On the molded gateway, under a floating crown, there is the sun himself, the French king’s favored symbol. As you can see, he was a flagrantly powerful man. But as I had bought a timed entry ticket—thus allowing me to skip the line—I was feeling flagrantly powerful myself.

Before we go inside, I should give you some of the most basic information about the palace and its maker. Though not always successful in his foreign wars, Louis XIV was arguably the most successful monarch in French history at consolidating power within France itself. At the time, simply being king was not enough by itself. Early in Louis XIV’s long reign, when the monarch was only a boy, the nobles of France attempted a rebellion, called the Fronde. The rebellion was eventually put down; but the threat of unruly aristocrats must have sunk deep within Louis’s consciousness. As soon as he was old enough to take control for himself, Louis set about centralizing the state and making his authority as absolute as possible. Unlike his predecessors, for example, he did not rely on ministers to carry out the real duties of governing, but insisting on acting himself,

The palace of Versailles was part of his scheme. Situating the palace outside of Paris allowed the king to escape many of the conventional pressures of both the populace and the wealthy. Instead, anyone who wished to pay their respects at court had to do so on Louis’s territory. And this meant submitting oneself to a byzantine set of rituals and etiquette that Louis established, which governed everything from what to wear to when to speak to how to eat. Louis’s whole routine was a spectacle. Aristocrats watched as the king dined and dressed, biding their time until, with any luck, they had their chance to access the monarch’s ear. It was a ritual perfectly devised to keep underlings in their place.

Considering this historical background, it is wise to view the palace for what it is: a monumental piece of propaganda. Louis XIV wanted Versailles to send an unambiguous message to every visitor: that he occupies the center of France. Thus, the palace’s architectural scheme irresistibly draws the visitor’s eye to the center of the building, where all of the lines meet. It is here that I began my tour.

The first space which caught my eye was the royal chapel. This is a tall and narrow space; greek columns are supported by a row of arches, leading up to a richly decorated ceiling. Once again, the architecture here is perfectly calculated to convey a message. The narrow width of the space makes the ceiling seem especially tall, seeming to squeeze and dwarf the visitor; and the repeating columns and arches unmistakably communicate a sense of orderliness. We are entering a world where even prayer is subservient to the state, and where even religious worship itself is part of the pomp of power.

Next we enter into the State Apartments. These are sumptuously decorated rooms, used by the king for receiving courtiers and visitors. The walls and ceilings of these rooms are covered with designs and paintings. The most notable of these may be the Meal at the House of Simon the Pharosee, by Veronese—a lovely work of the high Italian renaissance. The color gold is everywhere in these rooms, and the ceilings are full of cherubs, clouds, and crowns. The king himself is ever-present, not least in the magnificent bust by Bernini, which manages to make the king into a truly heroic figure. Next in the visit come the royal apartments, where we can see the luxuriant beds where the king and the queen slept. As usual, no matter the luxury, I did not find envying these places of rest. I would not want to sleep in an enormous, empty room—even if it was on the finest silk.

Note the Veronese painting at the far end.
An example of the ornate ceilings.

Then we come to the so-called Grand Gallery, the most opulent rooms in a building full of opulent rooms. In the War Salon we see Louis XIV yet again, in a relief by Antoine Coysevox, looking martial and kingly on his horse. This leads directly to the most famous space of all: the Hall of Mirrors. Nowadays, of course, mirrors are nothing special; but at the time they were extremely expensive, largely because Venice had a monopoly on their production. Louis XIV was committed to using products made in France, but he actually enticed some glass-makers to defect from Venice to France to work for him (whom the Venetians later tried to poison for their betrayal). This hallway served Louis XIV in his endless courtly rituals as a place where he could stroll back and forth, giving underlings a chance to make requests as he passed. Many years later, the Treaty of Versailles—which put an end to WWI, and set the stage for WWII—was signed in this room. 

The king presiding over the War Room.
Expensive or not, the mirrors do not work very well.

The visit next brings you to a newer part of the palace: the Galerie des Batailles. This was built during the reign of Louis Philip I (1830 – 1848), and it replaced several apartments in the original design. It is modelled on the Grand Gallery of the Louvre (to which it looks remarkably similar), and is full of busts and portraits of famous French military men. Unsurprisingly, Napoleon dominates the scene, as painting after painting represent his martial glories. Unless you are an intensely patriotic Frenchman, this room will likely not excite profound emotions. Yet propaganda is seldom more glorious and more impressive that this display. 

This pretty well completes the basic visit to the palace. But the best part of Versailles is still to come: the gardens. Now, gardens come in many varieties; and a major split is between English and French gardens. English gardens are romantic in spirit, seeking to evoke the wildness and grandeur of nature. French gardens are the exact opposite: they represent humanity’s dominance over the natural world. Thus, one finds neat hedge-rows, straight aqueducts, and heroic sculptures. The gardens of Versailles are the most perfect example of this type. Standing at the back of the palace, one sees an entire landscape laid out in perfect symmetry, a harmonious composition that meekly submits to the visitor’s glance. As usual, the environment bespeaks centralized power.

While I normally dislike French gardens (I prefer natural parks to these monuments to neatness), I must admit that walking through the gardens of Versaille is an absolute delight. At every turn there is yet another charming fountain to see, yet another sculpture to please the eye. Most of the imagery used in these gardens comes from ancient Greece and Rome, drawing apparent links between the reign of Louis XIV and these sources of Western culture. Louis XIV seems to invite comparison with Augustus himself. The perfect musical accompaniment to a walk in these gardens is, undoubtedly, the compositions of Jean-Baptise Lully—Louis’s court composer. Like the palace and the gardens, the music conveys pomp and power; it is trim, ornate, and grandiloquent. 

This is my alley.

Eventually, the walker comes across the Grand Trianon. This is a chateau that served as a kind of getaway for the king, much as the Generalife served as a getaway for the residents of the Alhambra. The idea of having a smaller, secondary palace within a fifteen-minute walk from the central palace may seem a little silly; certainly it does not seem like much of a vacation. However, the Grand Trianon served an important function for the kings of France: as a place to be with their mistress. Famed for being the country with the highest tolerance of infidelity, the kings have France have long enjoyed the privilege of supplementing their marriage. (This tradition has, apparently, continued into modern times; Françoise Hollande—Macron’s predecessor—made little effort to hide his own dalliances.) The Grand Trianon would be a resplendent residence in another context, and yet when compared with the monstrous Versailles it appears positively humble.

The Grand Trianon.

Nearby is the Petit Trianon, another supplementary palace. This was built during the reign of Louis XIV’s successor, Louis XV, for his mistress and advisor, Madame Pompadour. Unfortunately, that great woman died before she could move in, and so it was used by her own successor as the head mistress, Madame du Barry. Its most famous resident, however, is undoubtedly Marie Antoinette—not a mistress, but a queen. (Louis XVI was one of the few faithful French monarchs.) Like the kings before her, she came here to escape the demands of court life. As such, the palace was designed for as little interaction as possible between the young queen and the servants. As its name suggests, the building itself is fairly small—though, of course, carefully decorated. 

The Petit Trianon

Directly next door is the Hameau de la Reine (the Queen’s Hamlet). This is a kind of artificial village, built to give the illusion that the Petit Trianon lay deep in the countryside. Thus, there is a farm, a barn, a dovecote, a watermill, and all the other trappings of country life. The architects succeeded in their design, for the little village is quite beautifully rustic. The gardens surrounding this area are quite distinct from those in the rest of Versailles. The influence of Romanticism is clearly marked here: instead of neat hedgerows, trees are scattered about naturalistically, sheep and cows graze in the grass, and the pond is full of hungry fish. It was quite a visual relief after the relentless parallel lines of Versailles and its gardens. 

This brings us to perhaps the most famous scene in the history of the palace. It was in these gardens that, on October 5th, 1789, Marie Antoinette became aware of the crowd approaching the palace. This was the Women’s March, a crowd of Parisians who had walked all the way to Versailles, driven by hunger and scarcity of bread. The king and his ministers ultimately proved unable to pacify the crowd; and a violent confrontation led between the citizens and the guards led to the royal family being led away to Paris, where they spent the remainder of their lives as virtual prisoners. It is a myth, by the way, that Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake” in response to the demands for bread. (The quotation comes from a passage in Rousseau’s Confessions, which he wrote long before the Revolution.) But she was an unpopular queen in any case, partly because of her taste for extravagant luxury, and partly being a foreigner (she was Austrian by birth).

The mirrors in the Grand Trianon work better.

The revolution proved a major turning-point in the history of Versailles. The monarchy would never return. In the following years, parts of the palace fell into disrepair. Indeed, the cost of maintaining the palace, and supplying the water needed for all of its gardens, is enormous by any standard—a testament to the power wielded by Louis XIV. History has shown, however, that the power was ultimately fragile, since it was not enough to keep the people of France happy. 

At present, the palace of Versailles stands as a monument to a dead idea: that one single man should occupy the center of a state. It is an impressive and even a beautiful place. Its beauty, however, is that which can be bought wealth and power; it is the beauty of fine materials, unlimited resources, and exquisite craftsmanship. Lacking anything beyond naked self-aggrandizement to animate it, the palace and its gardens have a certain sterility, as if the glorious exteriors have little of value within. Compare this stone behemoth to the Alhambra, which looks like hardly anything from the outside, but whose interior possesses an otherworldly beauty. Perhaps this is because, instead of having images of a king on its walls, the Alhambra has a line of text: “There is no victor but God.”

Letters from Spain #16: The Wonders of Spanish Food

Letters from Spain #16: The Wonders of Spanish Food

Here’s the next episode of my Spanish podcast. This one is about Spanish food:

Here’s the episode on Apple podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-16-the-wonders-of-spanish-food/id1469809686?i=1000466715566

And below you will find the transcript:


Hello.

I’m back, and the world is here with me. Bernie Sanders is winning the primaries, Harvey Weinstein is going to jail, and coronavirus is in Italy now. To be honest, I am a bit concerned about what’s going on in Italy, if for admittedly selfish reasons. On Thursday my brother and I are going to Poland, and our return flight has a stopover in Milan. So I hope that isn’t affected… I’m not too eager to get stuck in Poland.

Anyway, in this podcast I’d like to talk about a long-overdue topic. Spanish food. Food is a big part of any culture, and of course Spain is no exception. In fact, I’ve found that Spanish people are particularly proud of their food. This is apt to strike an American as very funny, since there are so many amazing things about Spain—its history, culture, weather—that its food probably doesn’t even make it on a tourists top ten attractions of visiting Spain. Many visiting Americans don’t really like Spanish food very much, actually, and this was also true of me at first, too. 

Like many visiting Americans, I was absolutely ignorant of what Spanish food would be like. I had the vague notion that it would be sort of like some of the Latin American food I had tried. But that’s totally wrong. It is actually rather amazing how unaffected Spanish food is by the food of its former colonies. It’s not like Great Britain, where curry has become universal and standard. Or like the Netherlands, where Indonesian food is very influential and popular. Spanish people hardly eat chili peppers and eat corn even less. Mexican food is more popular in New York than in Madrid. True, potatoes are from the New World, and Spanish people love potatoes. But in this regard Spanish food isn’t any more similar than Ireland’s or Germany’s to the food of Peru or Argentina.

Anyways, suffice to say that Spanish food isn’t like any Latin American food I’ve tried. In fact, my most persistent sensation was that Spanish food was rather plain and bland. You see, before moving to Spain I had been eating a lot of Chinese food. So I was used to intense flavors: salty, savory, spicy. When you eat really good Chinese food, the effect is overwhelming. In fact, American food in general can have this quality. Whether something is covered in melted cheese, or drenched in barbecue sauce, or packed with sugar, American food is not known for subtle flavors. 

Spanish food is very different. For one, there aren’t a lot of spices. Aside from salt and pepper, the most common flavor is paprika. And Spanish paprika is really wonderful stuff—smoky and rich—but it isn’t exactly overwhelming. Indeed, the whole Spanish philosophy of food is diametrically opposed to what you often find in, say, Chinese food. In the latter case, a sauce gives all the ingredients a uniformly wonderful flavor. In Spanish food, however, the focus is on the ingredients. The flavor of the individual meats and vegetables is not covered up. Instead, you’re supposed to enjoy the subtle flavors of each component.

As a result of this, Spanish food can seem sort of simple, plain, and even uninspiring to visiting Americans. In general we Americans expect intense flavors, and in restaurants we expect food that we probably wouldn’t be able to make at home. This is definitely not the case in Spain, where most of the stuff you can order at a restaurant is extremely simple: a sauteed chicken fillet with french fries, a fried egg with a vegetable medley, or simply a plate of sliced ham. It’s as simple as it can possibly be. But on the plus side, it normally doesn’t leave you feeling bloated and sick—like so much American food does.

You can get an idea of the Spanish conception of food from the case of Jamie Oliver. Now, in case you don’t know, Jamie Oliver is an English celebrity chef. A few years ago he released a paella recipe that uses chorizo—the typical red Spanish sausage—and Spanish people freaked out. The whole country rose in rebellion against this foreigner’s handling of the iconic Spanish dish, and it was mainly because of the chorizo. Traditionally, paella is made either with seafood, with chicken (and possibly rabbit), or with both. There are other variations, but the important thing is that it’s never made with chorizo. Spanish chorizo is very greasy and has a strong flavor; so any chorizo could potentially overpower some of the more delicate flavors in paella, such as the saffron that is traditionally used.

Now, to an American—or to an English celebrity chef, presumably—this is not at all how we are used to thinking about food. For us, the more the better. How could you make a dish worse by adding delicious sausage? It doesn’t make sense! Jamie Oliver’s paella is sure to have a stronger, more intense flavor than the traditional variety. But, again, the way Spanish people approach food is different. The point is not to have a kind of out-of-body experience and find god. It’s to have high-quality, traditional flavors. Thus, food culture tends to be a lot more conservative than it is in America, since we have almost no allegiance to any recipe whatsoever. The only thing that matters to us is that it tastes good. In Spain—as in much of the world—there are traditional rules that must be followed if we are going to call something “paella” and not just “rice with chorizo.” 

So I already mentioned that most Americans have no idea what Spanish food is. And this especially shows when journalists talk about the Mediterranean diet. The fact that Spanish people eat a Mediterranean diet is often given as the main reason why Spain is such a healthy country whose people enjoy long lifespans. In these articles, they always talk about the fruits, nuts, vegetables, and fish that Spanish people eat—and the low levels of carbs and meat. You’d think that the country is full of people eating salads and munching on mangos. But that’s very far from the case. Let me dispel this image with one example. The most typical dish of Madrid is called cocido madrileño, and this is what it consists of: sausage, blood sausage, panceta, ham, beef, and chicken, boiled for several hours and served with a big serving of potatoes and chick peas. Does that sound like a light meal to you?

(By the way, the other typical meal of Madrid is called callos a la madrileña, which is cow intestine stewed with sausage and bacon.)

In truth, Spanish people eat a lot of meat. I mean, pork is fundamental to Spanish cuisine. Aside from the many varieties of jamón—all of them succulently good—there is the holy trio of chorizo, panceta, and morcilla (blood sausage), which are used as the basis of so many Spanish stews. My understanding is that pork became intensely important to the Spanish identity since eating it was what distinguished Christians from Jews and Muslims, back when Spain had a diverse religious populace. In any case, pork is treasured in all its varieties, from pork chops to little fried bits of pork fat, called torreznos. There is scarcely any part of the animal that isn’t used. And in many small villages in Spain, the annual pig slaughter (matanza) is a big festivity.

Madrid isn’t the only place with heavy food, by the way, It’s everywhere. Maybe the capital is Asturias, where the two most famous dishes are fabada asturiana (a bean stew with lots of sausage) and cachopo (thinly sliced pork with cheese and ham inside, breaded and fried). But heavy food is everywhere. The last time I was in Extremadura, my brother and I tried to order a plate of vegetables to go with our big plate of pork. But the restaurant literally didn’t have any vegetables to offer us. Another time, down in Andalucia, where you’d think the food would be lighter, the closest thing a restaurant could offer us to a salad was a plate of cheese. So where are all of these fruit and vegetable eating Spaniards? You certainly don’t see them in the restaurants. Maybe they eat very well in the privacy of their own homes.

Admittedly, one way that Spanish food is definitely healthier than American food is the popularity of seafood. They eat lots of fish, squid, octopus, shellfish—you name it. Even in Madrid, which is right in the middle of the country, there is a ton of seafood. My personal favorite is pulpo gallego, Galician style octopus. It’s prepared so that its texture is not at all rubbery or chewy, and it is instead tender and succulent. I also love the fried cod that you can get in many bars around the center. And calamares are always good to order. If the Spanish diet is definitely healthier than the American diet, I think the popularity of seafood plays a big role in that. Well, it’s also worth remembering that Spanish portions can be about half the size of American portions. So obesity is comparatively low.

So that’s the basic rundown of Spanish food, the best I can do in the span of a single podcast. But I haven’t explained why I’ve come to like Spanish food. To grasp the beauty of this cuisine, consider one of the most typical Spanish dishes: the tortilla. This has nothing to do with the corn tortillas from Mexico that you use for tacos. Instead, a Spanish tortilla is a potato omelette. There are only three basic ingredients: potatoes, eggs, and onion. In fact, a lot of Spanish people like their tortillas without onions (though I think that’s crazy), which makes it only two ingredients, not counting salt. Like so much Spanish food, it’s as simple as it can be. But when it’s made well, there’s nothing as satisfying as a good tortilla. I personally prefer it when it’s quite salty and when the egg isn’t fully cooked, so the inside is guey. 

In fact, I’m so passionate about the tortilla that I think it should be embraced worldwide, much like pizza is. It’s relatively easy to make, it uses cheap ingredients, its filling, and you can eat it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You can even put it on a sandwich. What more do you want?

Thank you.

Letters from Spain #15: The Darker Side of Spain

Letters from Spain #15: The Darker Side of Spain

Here is the next episode of my podcast. This one is about some of the social and economic problems besetting Spain.

To listen on Apple Podcasts, click here:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-15-the-darker-side-of-spain/id1469809686?i=1000466239844

See the transcript below:


Hello.

I realize that I’ve spent the last few podcasts comparing Spain and the United States, usually to show how my own country is lagging behind. But I am afraid that I am painting an overly sunny picture of Spain. It’s not a paradise by any means. But I admit that it is a bit harder for me to talk about Spain’s shortcomings. Like most people, Spaniards are not overly keen on foreigners criticizing their country. And there is a long tradition of foreigners criticizing Spain. Spaniards sometimes refer to the leyenda negra (the “black legend”)—which is a tendency among historians to treat Spain as backward, cruel, conservative, and uncivilized.

As an example of this, many people know that the Jews were expelled from Spain. (This happened in 1492, under the reign of the Catholic monarchs. They were officially given a choice between conversion or exile, or death I suppose.) This is sometimes used as the basis for portraying Spain as particularly intolerant. But you may not know that, in the course of history, the Jews were expelled from nearly every European country, and sometimes multiple times. Of course, a multitude of wrongs doesn’t make a right. Intolerance is always bad. The point, however, is that Spain was not exceptional in its intolerance.

Well, I’m not here to talk about the black legend. Rather, I want to talk about some of the shortcomings of Spain’s economy now. Along with Portugal, Ireland, and Greece, Spain was among the EU countries that took a big hit during the 2008 financial crash. Recovery was long, painful, and slow. But Spain did turn itself around, and now has an economy well ahead of Greece’s, or Italy’s, or Portugal’s. Still, there is cause for concern. I can report some anecdotal evidence. During my time as a teacher, I’ve come across doctors, lawyers, and engineers who couldn’t find work, or at least couldn’t find good work. That’s concerning enough as it is—highly-skilled workers who can’t find a job?! And even now, over ten years later, unemployment is still alarmingly high. While it is now well below 5% in the United States, it is around 14% here. That’s huge. And unemployment among young people (below 25) is about double that. Obviously this is a huge problem for an economy.

I have a pretty distorted picture of Spain’s economy myself, since I work as an English teacher. In general, native English teachers are in high demand in the country, so for me finding a job could hardly be easier. You’re basically hired on the spot. So from my point of view Spain’s economy is just great. But of course, the reason why a lot people want to learn English in the first place is so they can work in international business. In other words, it’s a sign that the best business opportunities are not to be found within Spain itself. But why is this?

The main explanation I’ve heard for Spain’s economic sluggishness—and admittedly it’s an explanation from a particular ideological camp—is that the EU’s economic policies are to blame. For one, because it shares the euro with so many countries, Spain cannot control its own currency, which means it can’t exert the kind of control that the Federal Reserve uses to adjust the American economy. Another commonly-blamed culprit is the economic philosophy of the German-dominated European Union, which insisted on imposing austerity in response to the crisis, and it’s generally preoccupied with keeping the deficit smaller than some pre-ordained limits. Now, please don’t ask me to explain any of this in detail. For this, you can read Joseph Stiglitz’s book The Euro for more. (Or just read my review.) And also, please don’t think that I’m anti-European Union. I love my euros. All I’m saying is that there’s a reason so many young professionals go to Germany and that so many people are out of work. Something isn’t working right.

This very high youth unemployment rate, by the way, is a major reason why so many young Spaniards live with their parents for such a long time. It’s not just because Spanish men are mama’s boys—although that’s true, too—but often from economic necessity that people live with their parents until adulthood. I should also mention that Spain is suffering from the same economic maladies that we often complain about in the United States. Inequality is only growing, while social mobility is not high. According to an OECD report, it would take a low-income family four generations to reach the country’s average income. (What does that mean?) Like most places, if you’re born poor you’re likely to remain poor, and the same goes for people born rich. This is not the society most people want to create.

The most obvious evidence of Spanish poverty are the shanty-towns. For three years, on the bus ride to work, I could see what was unmistakably a shanty-town out my window. It was just like you see in pictures from the great depression: improvised shelters made of bits of metal and wood, all huddled together. This was a settlement on one of the old shepherding trails given a royal license back in the middle ages, called cañadas reales. According to El País, almost 8,000 people were living on this illegally developed land, although admittedly not all of them in a shanty-town. In fact, some of the houses belong to middle-class families; and this wouldn’t be the first time in Madrid’s history that an illegally developed land became a thriving neighborhood. But obviously many of the people living there are abjectly poor, without access to basic services or infrastructure. 

For many years, you could also see a shanty town in a bit of undeveloped land behind Madrid’s railroad museum. The authorities were pretty slow in dealing with the situation. From what I’ve read, they came in, performed a census, and then tried to arrange public housing for the residents who qualified. Then, they came in and bulldozed the shelters. This happened in the cañadas reales, too, I believe. Even now, you can see bits of rubbish and blacked concrete left near the railroad museum.

Now, many of the people who were living in these shanty towns were ethnically Romani (they are often called “gypsy,” but that term is now considered offensive). The Romani area substantial ethnic minority in Spain, ultimately originating from India (though they left a long time ago). The word “gypsy,” by the way, comes from the word “Egyptian,” since this is where people thought they were from. Even though the Romani culture has had a great influence on the culture of Spain in general—particularly in the southern province, Andalusia—there is quite a bit of prejudice against the Romani people. They are imprisoned in huge numbers, and the vast majority are living below the poverty line. Many Spaniards are openly hostile to Romani people.

Admittedly the situation is quite complex, since the Romani are traditionally itinerant and thus tend to live outside of the norms of sedentary society. But as usually happens, it is difficult to say what is a cause and what is an effect. Are Romani pushed to the margins by choice, or is it a reaction against the prejudice of society? I suppose you’d have to ask an anthropologist. But I think it’s fair to say that the poor living conditions of so many Romani—and there are over one million in the country—is one of Spain’s most obvious social problems.

Another sort of person often pushed to the margins are migrant workers. Just last week, Philip Alston, an ambassador from the United Nations, visited a migrant workers’ camp in Huelva, in the south of Spain. What he found was yet another shanty town, with people living in what he describes as some of the worst conditions he’d ever seen in Europe. Here’s a little quote from an article in El País: “people cook by the light of their cell phones, fetch water from a tap two kilometers away and store it in plastic bottles that were once used for weedkiller. They shower outdoors with water heated on a stove, and go to the bathroom in the field.” Now keep in mind that some of these people have been living like this for a decade. They are agricultural temp workers, some of them without work permits, who make about six euros a day.

Not too far away from Huelva, in the province of Almeria, there is a huge conglomeration of green houses—so many that you can easily see it from space. (Just try it using Google’s satellite view.) This used to be totally arid land, but the greenhouses have made it incredibly productive. In fact, this relatively small space provides a big chunk of Europe’s fresh produce. But conditions inside the greenhouses are so brutal that the labor is mostly done by migrant laborers from Africa or Eastern Europe; and just like in Huelva, many of these workers live in slums and shanty towns, making much less than the minimum wage. Thirty percent of the workers are undocumented. Now, you can talk about illegal immigrants taking jobs all you want, but the fact is that Spaniards don’t want these jobs. And Europeans are happy to have cheap fruits and vegetables. But someone is paying for those cheap prices. It’s these migrants who are being exploited, and who live and work in unsafe conditions.

To round out this picture of the economic and social woes of Spain, I also have to mention the depopulation of the interior. Many villages in Spain are emptying out. In the least densely populated area in Spain—in the mountains between Cuenca, Guadalajara, and Teruel—the population density is less than it is in Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland. For years, the whole province of Extremadura has been struggling. Almost half of the people in Extremadura are living on less than 700 euros a month. It’s no surprise, then, that young people are trying their best to move into the cities. Meanwhile, in the cities, decent housing is getting harder and harder to find. Rents perpetually rise. Partially this is because so many houses are purchased at a high price and then mostly left empty by wealthy people. According to El País, there are almost three and a half million properties left empty. That’s pretty crazy to think about, when you keep in mind the people living in shanty towns on the edges of the city. In fact, the current socialist government is trying to create legislation to solve this problem.

Well, so there you go. That’s the best I can do in talking about the shortcomings of Spanish society. A sluggish economy, lots of people out of work, inequality and a lack of social mobility, and lots of people living on the margins of society. But I do want to end this podcast on a less gloomy note. As even the UN ambassador noted, Spain’s public healthcare system is working quite well, achieving universal coverage. An immigrant named Eva Costizo recently shared a “symbolic” invoice of what her medical bill would have been had there not been public healthcare. To an American that’s hard to fathom, someone publicly celebrating not paying a medical bill. Meanwhile, I just saw an article in the NYTimes about a person who received a “surprise” medical bill for $145,000. So I don’t think we have much to be gloating about.

Thank you.

Letters from Spain #14: Public Education

Letters from Spain #14: Public Education

Here is the next episode of my Spanish podcast. This one is about the enormous price differences between Spanish and American universities:

Here is the Apple Podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-14-public-education/id1469809686?i=1000465633689

For the transcript, see below:


Hello.

I’ve come back to work from a rather pleasant weekend. To celebrate our anniversary, Rebeca and I took a little trip to the Madrid mountains. It’s a beautiful place. The geography is dominated by grey granite formations (a material that also forms many of the local buildings) and the landscape is covered in pine trees. There are endless trails for hiking and lots of cute little villages to visit. The pueblo we happened to be in was populated by a bunch of hippies, eating vegetarian meals and drinking craft beer. It was a nice escape from the city center.

Well, anyways, in this podcast I don’t want to talk about Spain’s many vacation possibilities. Instead, I want to talk about something that is a source of envy for many Americans: public education. Specifically, public higher education. As with the cost of medicine, the cost of university in Europe is strikingly lower than it is in America. To give you an extreme example, going to New York University for one year costs (according to the internet) over $70,000. Now, admittedly NYU is one of the most expensive universities in the world. But even if you want to go to a much more modest college in America, like I did, you can still pay quite a lot. In my case, I went to a public university, Stony Brook, and had to pay well over $20,000 a year.

Meanwhile, my girlfriend went to the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid—one of the best universities in Spain—and paid around 3,000 euros per year. And a chunk of that was covered by a scholarship. Needless to say, she didn’t need to go into debt to get an education. Meanwhile, I graduated with well over $20,000 of debt and I’m still paying it off. So what is the deal with this huge price difference? It’s worth remembering that this wasn’t always the case. Every millenial has heard stories of Baby Boomers working their way through college. Just the other day I heard an economics professor say he paid for college by lifting boxes during the summers. Clearly, that’s impossible nowadays in America, so it’s worth asking what the deal is.

Obviously a big difference is how much the state subsidizes higher education. In Spain, as in many European countries, the government foots the bill. You could make the argument, therefore, that in Europe college isn’t really free after all, since the people pay for it in higher taxes. That’s one side to the story—and, of course, it’s a big one. But I think there is another, less-mentioned aspect to the college cost debate, and that is the culture of college.

In America, going to university is a rite of passage. It has been turned into a basic phase of young adulthood. You live away from your parents for the first time, and you live in a dorm with a bunch of other young people. Suddenly you find yourself in a world of young people with very few responsibilities. It’s a crazy time. People go to parties, fall in love, form close friendships, and very occasionally study. And campuses can be very comfortable places. My campus, for example, had free gyms all over the place, and even a pool to use. I joined an a capella club and volunteered in a local rock venue. The point I’m making is that college consisted of a lot more than just going to classes.

In Spain, college is not nearly such a huge personal step. It’s not mythologized like it is in America. I’ve never met a Spanish person who has a lot of pride for where they went to school, or strong nostalgia for their college days, or who has even really talked about their college experience at all. Meanwhile, I know Americans who dreamed of going to specific schools and whose whole friend group is from their college days. Really, university in Spain—and in much of Europe, I think—is a continuation of high school. It’s going to school. Most students don’t even move out of their parents’ house to get their undergraduate degrees. And if they do, it’s quite rare to move onto a dormitory on a college campus.

So one significant reason that college in America is so expensive, I think, is that it has become so much more than just going to school. Think about college sports. Each university in America has its own mascot, its own spirit band, its own star athletes. This doesn’t exist at all in Europe. My girlfriend doesn’t know her school’s animal. (My school’s animal is entirely fictional: it’s the Seawolf. And we had our own cheer: “What’s a Seawolf? I’m a Seawolf.”) In America, we expect a high profile guest to give a speech at our college graduation, where they praise us for being the best and the brightest the world has ever seen. Leaving college is a major ritual, too, after all. Again, nothing of the sort happens in Spain. There are no viral Spanish graduation speeches.

Since moving to Spain, I’ve come to see the American rituals of college as a bit ridiculous. A lot of it is fueled, I think, by our culture of competition. In the United States there are a handful of extremely prestigious schools with a limited number of spots, and where you go to school is a big determiner of your career. It thus becomes a part of your personal journey (and Americans love talking about their careers as personal journeys) and even your identity. This is partly why we demand so much from our college experiences. We don’t just go for the knowledge, but to take our rightful place in the hierarchy of society. We are supposed to emerge transformed, imbued with the prestige of our institution. If you don’t believe me, just talk to anyone who has gone to an Ivy League school. Either they reject it or it’s a part of who they are.

When universities are responsible for providing such an all-inclusive package—dormitories, food, social life, entertainment, psychological and physical health, and a life-defining education—it is no wonder that they cost a lot. What you are paying for is basically the brand itself. Even public universities in the United States pay huge amounts of money in marketing, in order to bolster the university’s brand. The better the brand, the higher the ranking, the more prestigious the university, and the more money it can charge to bestow its prestige on its clients—I mean students. 

I’m getting a bit carried away here, but I hope you see my point. In Spain, you are paying for your classes and little else. You emerge from university with a degree—more knowledgeable, hopefully, but not transformed into a vessel of prestige. To me, I think it’s a healthier system, not least because people don’t drive themselves crazy competing to get into the best university possible. Where you go to school does not determine your social status.

I have a limited experience going to a Spanish university. Last year, I completed a masters at the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, in the Instituto Franklin (which specializes in American studies and courses for Americans abroad). The masters took one year to complete and cost me about $4,000. That’s not a bad deal. As an aside, Alcalá de Henares is worth visiting just to see the historic university buildings, which are quite beautiful. The oldest continuously operating university in the country is in Salamanca, which was founded in the 12th century. If you are in Salamanca—a beautiful city—this is also worth a visit.

Anyways, I didn’t want to talk about higher education the whole time. I also want to mention about the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (the official school of languages). This is an initiative of the Spanish government to subsidize low-cost language classes outside of the university, mainly for adults. This year I began taking classes at one of the official schools in order to revive my atrophying German skills. And it’s been a great experience. I paid a little more than 200 euros for a whole academic year of classes. That works out to—what… about two euros per hour of class? It’s a very, very good deal. And the classes are quality, with properly qualified teachers and a well-established curriculum. I’m learning a lot this year.

There are dozens of official schools in Madrid alone and about half a million students enrolled in Spain. My particular school has a very wide range of languages on offer. Besides German, there are other major European languages like French, Italian, and English. There is Spanish for foreigners—quite useful for immigrants—and there are also the other three official languages of Spain: Basque, Catalan, and Galician. Aside from this, the school offers Dutch, Danish, Arabic, Greek, Gaelic, and Chinese (to give you the short list). If you want to become a polyglot, this is a place to be. And the school’s resources extend beyond the classroom. There are language exchanges, where you can find someone and “trade” languages, and also lots of cultural talks and events. There’s even a choir!

Of course, being run by the government, there are a few things to be desired. The school is in an ugly old building. One of the two elevator’s has been broken for two months, so I have to walk up the five floors to my class. And enrolling is a pain. But for what you pay, it’s really a great deal. In fact, I think that having a public school for language training is a wonderful idea, and one that we should embrace in the States. At the very least, it would be a great resource for immigrants. And it might help us with our famous monolingualism. I’d go even further, and suggest that the model of the Official School should be extended for other sorts of things. Computer coding, for example, or even photography—any kind of skill that adults might need to learn. Even on purely economic terms, investing in education usually pays off. After all, a multilingual workforce can outcompete a monolingual one.

In general, my experiences in Spain have made me a strong believer in public education, as uninspiring and inefficient as it can admittedly be sometimes. I think we lose a lot more than we gain by conceiving of college as a giant competition for limited amounts of prestige and status. Education should be about equalizing opportunities and not exacerbating differences, which it so often does in America.

And needless to say, graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt isn’t ideal. Let me give you a concrete example of the difference that debt makes. A few weeks ago I met a man from Scotland living in Germany. He had begun to study German language and literature, but a few years into his undergraduate he decided he didn’t like it—since he didn’t want to work as a translator or a teacher—and he stopped. Now, in America he would have been deeply in debt and without a college degree to help him get a job to pay for it. He would have to start working like mad to try to pay his loans off, and he’d have a difficult time for sure. (Even the loans we get from the federal government in America can have a high interest rate.) But this guy didn’t have to do that. He didn’t sink under the weight of debt since he didn’t have any. A few years later, he re-enrolled as an undergraduate to study music. And now he’s working his way through college—just like we used to do in America—paying for his living expenses with a part-time job as an audio engineer.

To many millenials in America, stories like that seem too good to be true. But are we willing to give up our mythologized college culture and settle into treating university as just additional schooling?—schooling that isn’t necessarily transformative and which isn’t necessarily the right step for every person? That’s hard to tell.

Thank you.

Paris: Cemeteries, Tombs, and Mausoleums

Paris: Cemeteries, Tombs, and Mausoleums

My first time in Paris was a whirlwind affair. I took a horribly early Ryanair flight and had barely 48 hours to see the major sites. Every waking moment was spent on my feet—and it was easily one of the most impressive travel experiences of my life. Yet such a breakneck tour naturally left me curious. What had I missed as I marched through the city? Thankfully, my second trip to Paris was far more leisurely.

In this post, I want to talk about a particular interest of mine: burial sites. For me, visiting cemeteries is oddly comforting. It is tragic, of course, that we all must die. But it does help to put things in perspective. Recalling that the greatest artists, scientists, and emperors have all succumbed to the same fate can ease our own existential anxiety. And being reminded of our universal destiny can also help us to savor the experiences that make life really worthwhile. This is how I feel, and this is why I went out to explore some of the most famous graves in Paris.


Père-Lachaise

Père-Lachaise is located somewhat outside the city-center, and that is for a reason. As in many major cities in the 19th century, there was less and less room for more and more bodies. Overcrowding in municipal cemeteries was both unattractive and unhygienic. So in 1804, shortly after Napoleon’s ascent to the throne, several “garden cemeteries” were opened on the outskirts of the city. This same process played out in New York City, leading to the creation of beautiful cemeteries like Woodlawn or Green-Wood, among others. In Paris, the biggest cemetery established was Père-Lachaise—built on a hill outside the city, and named for a royal confessor who used to live on the site.

In appearance, Père-Lachaise is somewhere intermediate between the solid stone cemeteries of Spain and the park-like cemeteries of New York. Tree-shaded walkways lead past rows and rows of gravestones, most of them large and ornate. As soon as I walked inside I felt refreshed. After the bustle and noise of Paris, the dead make welcome company. And there are many of them to choose from. Over one million souls lie interred in Père-Lachaise—half the population of modern-day Paris. The cemetery is still active, though burial is expensive and the waiting-list is long. Because of overcrowding, the cemetery actually engages in space-saving measures, such as burying family members together or digging up bodies whose leases have expired. In Paris, even the departed get evicted.

Even though the cemetery is only two-hundred years old—quite young in a European context—it contains bodies that are far older. The most conspicuous example of this is the iconic couple: Abelard and Heloïse. Abelard was one of the finest intellectuals of the Middle Ages, whose philosophical contributions to theology are still fascinating. But among laypeople, he is most famous for his tumultuous love-affair with Hélöise, documented in a series of passionate letters that have become literary classics. Their bodies—supposed bodies, I should say—were moved to Père-Lachaise as part of a marketing ploy to boost the cemetery’s reputation, and now lay interred in an elaborate psuedo-gothic tomb, where the two lovers—whose religious vows made their love rather difficult—can now enjoy eternal rest together.

Two more celebrities were dug up and re-buried here as part of the same marketing push: the dramatist Molière and fabulist Jean de la Fontaine, who both died in the 17th century. I was especially happy to find Molière, who is one of my favorite dramatists of any kind. His comedies are uniformly profound and delightful. The two iconic writers lie interred next to one another, in fairly simple stone sarcophagi raised above the ground. I am not sure about the ethics of relocating bodies for reasons of profit; but I was very glad to see Molière.

Gertrude Stein

There are many other famous writers to be found, and not all of them French. Gertrude Stein—who wrote innovative, complex books—lies under a simple, traditional grave. The playwright Oscar Wilde’s tomb is significantly more elaborate. It is an enormous statue carved by the sculptor Jacob Epstein, featuring a kind of winged messenger. To my eyes, however, the sculpture appears a bit stiff and awkward, certainly not suggestive of flight. But it at least catches one’s attention. Somehow, the tradition of kissing the statue with bright red lipstick got underway. Nowadays there is a plexiglass barrier to prevent this. A writer I prefer to either Stein or Wilde has a less-visited tomb: Marcel Proust. After having slogged my way through all of his enormous novel, In Search of Lost Time, I was moved to see the great artist’s modest tombstone. For an artist so obsessed with remembrance, he has an inconspicuous grave.

Edith Piaf

Père-Lachaise also has its share of musicians. The body of Fréderic Chopin, the great piano composer, is close to the entrance. Further on, one comes across Edith Piaf, that star of French singers. It was impossible to look down on her grave without unconsciously hearing her distinctive voice. Yet the most famous musician buried in Père-Lachaise is not a European, but Jim Morrison, the American singer who died at age 27. His may be the most-visited grave in the entire cemetery. So many people visit and vandalize it, in fact, that the cemetery has taken to placing a barrier around the tombstone, so that nobody can get too close. 

Oscar Wilde’s tombstone

Apart from these personal monuments to the illustrious dead, there are several more general monuments in Père-Lachaise. The most general is the monuments aux morts, a sculptural complex unveiled in 1899 commemorating all of the dead in the cemetery (and presumably beyond). Père-Lachaise has more specific commemorations, too, such as the monument to the victims of the Mauthausen concentration camp. For me this is an extremely moving piece. It shows us a gaunt and haggard figure sprawled across impossibly steep steps. This is meant to evoke the “stairs of death,” 186 steps in which inmates were forced to carry granite up to the top of a quarry. Owing to my own background, I was also pleased to find a monument to the Spaniards who fought in World War II and the French who served in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Largo Caballero, one of the leaders of the Republic during this tragic time in Spanish history, is also interred nearby.

The Monument to the Dead

One could go on endlessly listing famous bodies in this cemetery. But since life is short, we must move on to the next one.


Montparnasse

Montparnasse is situated in the south of the city. It was established around the same time as Père-Lachaise, and for the same reasons: overcrowding in municipal cemeteries. It is the second-largest cemetery in Paris, with 300,000 bodies. While not quite as beautiful as its more famous cousin, Montparnasse is home to almost as many icons.

Of special interest for me were the two most famous philosophers of 20th-century France: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Simone de Beauvoir is usually remembered nowadays as a feminist, and her book The Second Sex is still widely read. She deserves to be remembered for far more, however, as she was an extremely versatile writer and thinker. During her lifetime she published important works of philosophy, best-selling novels, and many memoirs that have become classics. She spent most of her working life in an open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, the patron saint of existentialism. Sartre was just as versatile as de Beauvoir, writing plays, novels, pamphlets, treatises, biographies, and much else. Though controversial, Sartre was extremely popular during his lifetime, and his funeral was attended by tens of thousands of mourners. I can think of no writer alive today who could compare with this pair.

There are still more writers to be found. Charles Baudelaire—one of the most important French poets of the 19th century—lies peacefully under a modest tombstone, after having thrown the world of literature into disarray. And Emile Durkheim, who helped to found sociology as a discipline, lies similarly inconspicuous among the tombs. I was surprised to find Julio Cortázar, as well, who was regarded as one of the outstanding Latin American novelists of any time. Finding Susan Sontag, the influential American essayist, only added to my surprise. Finally I must mention Samuel Beckett, the Irish writer who was one of the pioneers of the absurd. I knew that Paris attracted writers, but I did not know its appeal was so everlasting.


Les Invalides

You will recognize that Les Invalides looks an awful lot like “the invalids,” and that gives you a clue as to its history. Les Invalides originates as a huge hospital and home for military veterans who had been wounded in war, built under Louis XIV. It is a sprawling complex of long halls separated by ample courtyards, covering an enormous area in central Paris.

The majority of the complex is now given over to its use as a military museum. Thus, as you stroll through the seemingly endless halls, you see knights in armor, crossbows, muskets, cannons, machine guns, and tanks. Not being especially fond of military history, I made my way through this area rather quickly; but I am sure it would hold many delights for aficionados.

I was mainly there to see the tomb of one of the most important men in history: Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon the man was a paradox: power-hungry but idealistic, republical but imperial, egotistical but patriotic, heroic but despotic—the list goes on. This is why he is so fascinating. Indeed, I have heard that Napoleon is the subject of more books than any other historical figure apart from Jesus. It seems only fitting that his tomb be resplendent.

Napoleon lies interred under the central dome of Les Invalides, which originated as a royal chapel for Louis XIV. One wonders whether a church is the most appropriate place for the remains of the dictator—who was not, after all, especially religious—but at least the space is appriopriately grand. A painted dome ceiling hangs far above the space, which opens up to reveal the magnificent sarcophagus of the little emperor. Carved from red quartzite, the sarcophagus emerges from the floor, with its curved lid seeming to break upon the space like a wave. The sarcophagus is surrounded by statues and friezes depicting Napoleon’s glorious reign. Many of them depict the French emperor as the second coming of Alexander the Great—crowned in laurels, sitting as a god among men. It is a bit hard to stomach if you are not an admirer.

As you may know, Napoleon spent his final days on the tiny island of St. Helena, far away from France. It was only during the reign of Louis Philippe (who was trying to curry favor with Napoleon supporters) that the emperor’s bones were brought to France and interred in such grandiose style. As with all funerary displays, the pomp can seem rather empty. Napoleon died a defeated man, after all; and no matter how glorious he was, he is gone for good. But on the other hand, it is humbling to think that somebody born into ordinary circumstances could acquire such a hold over his adopted country (Napoleon was born in Corsica).

The tomb of Joseph Bonaparte

Well, the great Bonaparte is not the only one to be buried here. His son, Napoleon II, is also in attendance, though he died quite too young (21) to have anything but a minor role in French history. I was more interested in finding Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, who held the title as the King of Spain for a few years before being forced to flee. After abdicating, Joseph spent much of his remaining life in the United States, living off the jewels he took from Spain. This is basically my plan, too.


The Panthéon

The last time I visited Paris was in May of 2018—about a year before Notre-Dame burned. Nowadays, I suspect, it is impossible to look at the charred building without feeling a bit melancholy. Yet normally the area around Notre-Dame is one of the prettiest parts of Paris. The cathedral is situated on the Île de la Cité, a small island in the Seine. Crossing the bridge southwards, you could see the cathedral’s monumental form standing above calm waters of the river, and marvel at the elaborate iron spire. 

Just across the bridge you will come across Shakespeare and Company, the famous book store frequented by Anglophone expatriots like James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. This is not the original location of the store, however; nor was it ever affiliated with the store’s original owner, Sylvia Beach. This store is more like an homage to Beach’s. Original or not, it has an excellent selection of English-language books, so I decided to walk inside. I emerged with a used copy of Giogio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, a book that I had wanted to read for some time. 

Moving further south, you come to Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, another of Paris’s beautiful churches. Its façade is a rather strange and cluttered jumble of styles, which nevertheless manages to be quite charming. Unfortunately for me, both times I tried to visit, the church was closed; so I have not seen its interior. From what I have read, it is quite a lovely space.

But I was not there to see cathedrals, churches, or bookstores. I was there was the Panthéon, Paris’s great temple to its illustrious dead. It is an enormous neoclassical building, with a towering dome highly reminiscent of America’s Capitol Building (which is not surprising, since the Panthéon was a direct influence). Originally, however, this grandiose building was not built for France’s secular heros, but as a church to Saint Genevive, the patron saint of Paris. But during the atheistic years of the French Revolution, it was decided to deconsecrate the space and use it to honor heroes of the Enlightenment.

Every inch of the structure is richly decorated. The visitor walks under the peristyle, through the flowering Corinthian columns, and past elaborate friezes of religious scenes. The interior of the building is expansive and just as ornate. Any list of the sculptures and paintings would be tedious, but the interplay between Enlightenment and Church decorations is immediately noticeable. The great battle for Europe’s soul is played out on the walls.

Under the magnificently painted dome, which shows us the apotheosis of Saint Genevieve, there hangs a celebration of human science: Foucault’s pendulum. This is a simple device, consisting of a bob hanging down on a long wire. The back and forth motion of the pendulum undergoes a precession around a circle, directly illustrating earth’s motion. Behind this tribute to the human mind is a celebration of democracy: François-Léon Siccard’s sculptural portrayal of the National Convention. We see a martial female figure (liberty?) surrounded by politicians and soldiers, where underneath it states: “Vivre libre ou mourir” (Live free or die).

Foucault’s pendulum
Two Frances: The monument to the National Convention, with Jesus in the background.

As interesting as is the temple itself, the crypt was why I was there. If you have any love for classic books, it is a holy place. After descending a small staircase, you suddenly find yourself standing between two of the most influential writers of any place and time: Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Voltaire was the first Enlightenment hero to be interred here. At first denied a Christian burial, his remains were first interred in secret in an Abbey in Champagne. But in 1791, during the heady days of the Revolution, it was decided that Voltaire deserved the secular equivalent to canonization, and his remains were moved here. The procession was enormous: reportedly a million people came out to celebrate the late hero, with music, ritual, and fanfare.

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was moved here three years later, in 1794, after it was decided that he too was a hero of the Revolution. For my part, it is rather strange to find these two men sharing the same vault. They are opposed in both thought and temperament. Voltaire was an enemy of tyranny but he was no democrat; his writings stressed the importance of civilization and rationality. Rousseau, on the other hand, was a champion of the “general will” in politics; and he emphasized the importance of nature and feeling. The two writers sparred several times in life, each finding the other brilliant but repugnant. Somehow, the ideals of the Revolution were able to accomodate them both.

Voltaire’s tomb is the more impressive of the two, if only because of the wonderfully lifelike statue of the wry old philosopher standing before it. Rousseau’s coffin celebrates the man’s accomplishments in inscriptions on both sides, and on one end we see a hand reaching out, bearing a torch. I got goosebumps as I stood there.

Moving further into the crypt, one finds many little chambers branching off the central corridor. Many of these are filled with officers and generals, most of whom served under Napoleon. This had little interest for me. Instead, I made my way straight to the chamber containing the mortal remains of three giants of French literature: Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Emile Zola.

Victor Hugo was the first to be buried here. Few writers have ever been so beloved by their country. His ceremony was even more elaborate than that for Voltaire, with over two million people in attendance. Emile Zola, another liberal writer, was next to enter the Parthéon, although the ceremony was disturbed by an assassination attempt on the life of Alfred Dreyfus. (Dreyfus was a Jewish officer falsely accused of a crime, whom Zola publicly defended. Proust writes much about the case in his enormous novel. Dreyfus is now buried in Montparnasse.) Finally, as recently as 2002, Alexander Dumas was relocated here, in recognition of his enormous popularity.

As usual with the tombs of icons, standing in their presence is both humbling yet exalting. But what I most like about such visits, perhaps, is that it helps to make a historical figure—a person who can seem impossibly distant—seem real and concrete. These people are no longer just names on a page, but just as real as I am.

So ended my visit to Paris’s tombs. If you can believe it, I managed to visit all of these illustrious graves in the span of a single day. It was a modern, secular pilgrimage.


The Catacombs

Though I have never visited the catacombs myself, I feel that I cannot end this post without at least making mention of this popular spot. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, by the end of the 18th century Paris was having a problem with making room for its ever-multiplying dead. It is difficult for an American to quite realize the scope of this problem, since our country’s history is so comparatively shallow. Paris has been around a long time: inhabited since at least the Roman times, it has been a major settlement for over 1,000 years. In short, there are an awful lot of bones to bury, and the city’s space is limited.

By the late 1700s, the situation was getting serious. In the largest municipal cemetery, Saints-Innocents, so many people were buried on top of one another that the ground was piled up to six feet (or two meters) high. In some areas, this proved to be so heavy that it caused the ground to collapse. Also, as you can imagine, having such a huge pile of bodies is not good for the water supply, not to mention for the air quality. Luckily, however, a solution was at hand. Much of the ground in this area of the city—the Left Bank, close to Montparnasse—was riddled with tunnels and holes, widely used in previous years to mine limestone. Thus, beginning in the 1780s, wagons carried these ancient bones into their new resting-place, under the streets of Paris.

Photo by Djtox; taken from Wikimedia Commons

I admit that it does make me feel a bit ethically uneasy to imagine disturbing the eternal rest of so many citizens. Then again, I suppose many of the bones belonged to people who had lived centuries ago, and who were buried in mass graves anyway. Now these skulls and femurs compose one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. The skeletal remains are arranged into patterns on the walls, creating a kind of grim aesthetic charm. I suppose I should visit; but the thought does make me slightly queasy.

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Letters from Spain #12: Crime and Punishment

Letters from Spain #12: Crime and Punishment

Here is the next episode of my podcast.This one is about crime and punishment in America and Spain:

Here is the Apple podcasts link:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-12-crime-and-punishment/id1469809686?i=1000464236724

And see below for the transcript:


Hello.

I must, unfortunately, begin this podcast with some bad news. Well, it’s bad for me anyway. This past Saturday, as you may know, was Chinese New Year. To celebrate, I decided to go to the big parade in Usera—the Madrid equivalent of Flushing, Queens. The parade was packed. It took us twenty minutes just to walk a couple blocks, and even then our view of the parade was obscured by the crowds. I still managed to take some good pictures, though.

But you will most likely never be able to see these pictures, since shortly after the parade ended my camera was stolen. I’m not sure how it happened. The most likely story seems to be that it was nabbed while I was sitting down at a Chinese restaurant. There were tons of people around and the place was very busy. For half the meal, both me and my brother had our backs to the door, and I carelessly placed my camera on the floor. When we got up, it had vanished. My theory is that someone walked in, spotted it, and nabbed it before anyone took notice. Either that, or I did something even more stupid and left it on a chair or something.

Anyways, this loss, bad as it was, did at least connect me with a universal experience for tourists in Europe: being pickpocketed. There is not a whole lot you can do after the fact. In my case, I looked up my camera’s serial number (which is encoded with every photo you take with it) and then filled out a police report. Though I’ve heard stories of people waiting for hours in the police station, I filled out the report online and then went over to the station to sign all the paperwork. It took me about ten minutes. Every pawn shop in the city is required by law to keep a list of all the serial numbers of its products, and to submit that list to the police. But thieves must have their own workarounds, since business in the pickpocket industry is booming. In fact, judging anecdotally, theft seems to be on the rise. So be careful out there. 

Well, to repeat, pickpocketing is a common hazard for travelers everywhere. Though strangely, it seems to be far more common in Europe than in the United States, and particularly bad in Spain. Barcelona is commonly called the pickpocketing capital, with Madrid not far behind. Again, judging anecdotally, the situation is really quite bad in Barcelona. Judging from the stories I see on Facebook, it can seem like half of the tourists who go there lose their phone. Pickpockets are quite good at what they do.

Pickpocketing statistics are naturally very difficult to collect. Many people don’t report the crimes, and even if they are reported it normally cannot be proven that a missing item was stolen and not merely lost. Besides that, pickpockets are only rarely caught by the police. The only figure I’ve been able to get my hands on is 10,000 robberies a year in Madrid, done by about 500 pickpockets who mainly prowl the city’s metro. But I’m not sure how far to trust those figures. In any case, I am constantly hearing about phones and wallets stolen in Madrid.

By contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a pickpocketing story about New York City. This is really strange. There are lots of needy people in NYC, and the dense crowds would make it an ideal place for pickpocketing. So why isn’t there more petty theft? Is it a cultural thing? Better law enforcement? Harsher penalties?

While I’m on the topic of crimes, I thought that I would compare some other crime statistics across my two countries. I quickly found that, while Spain may be worse than the United States when it comes to theft, the US is a lot more violent. Here the relevant statistics are easy to find: In America there are a little more than five murders per 100,000 people. In Spain, the number is 0.63—eight times smaller. Now, call me a liberal snowflake, but I can’t help thinking that this huge difference is largely due to greater access to guns in America.

The American statistics on sexual violence are just as bad. The relevant figure for the United States is 27.3, while in Spain it is a measly 3.4. Of course, rape is also difficult to measure, since it is underreported and under-prosecuted almost everywhere. Here in Spain there have been notorious cases of rapists walking free. So it’s certainly not great anywhere.

Now, Spain may or may not be better than America when it comes to crime rates as a whole. But Spain—and the rest of the world, for that matter—definitely has America beat when it comes to incarceration rates. The United States has the highest percentage of its population behind bars of all the countries in the world: 655 per 100,000. Believe it or not, the United States also has the biggest total number of prisoners in the world—well over two million—significantly more than China, a country with a much bigger population, and which we usually disparage for being totalitarian. The incarceration rate for Spain is 126 per 100,000, about five times lower.

When you consider that Spain experiences significantly less violent crime than America, I don’t know how one can justify such an insanely high incarceration rate. To be honest, I really can’t see any way to explain it other than by drawing the conclusion that we are throwing way too many people into prison in America. (And of course a disproportionately high number of them are black.)

Apart from this, prisoners are generally treated better in Spain than in America. The prisons are less crowded, for one thing, and are therefore more comfortable. Prisoners can pay to have a television or radio in their cells, and can even vote in the elections. Most shocking for me, conjugal visits are allowed, even for non-married partners (they are only permitted in four states in America, and they are not easy to arrange).

But maybe the biggest difference is the death penalty. The United States is the only country in all of the Americas—north, central, and south—to maintain the practice, and also the only so-called Western country to do so. In Europe, only one country (Belarus) continues capital punishment. Spain is a typical European country in this respect: the death penalty has been abolished since the 1970s, and even abolished in the military since the 1990s.

If you ask me, it is way past the time that we do the same in America. There’s little evidence that capital punishment serves as an effective deterrent. And since such a disproportionate percentage of our population is in prison, it stands to reason that we are in general over-prosecuting, and sending many innocent people to jail. Morally speaking, I think it’s worse to kill an innocent person than to insufficiently punish a guilty one.

As a last little piece of data for my informal comparison of crime and punishment, we can look at police killings. In America, there were 119 police killings in 2019, and 390 before that.* And of course the victims are, as usual, disproportionately black. Meanwhile, I can’t even find any statistics about police killings in Spain, and I’ve never heard of it happening. Once again, I suspect that a big culprit is guns. When the population is armed, it naturally makes police officers more prone to panic and overreact with deadly force, since there is a substantially higher risk for them. But if guns are extremely uncommon, then police officers can more easily remain cool. And a calm officer is obviously one less likely to open fire. (But this is just my little hypothesis about this.**)

Well, there you go, a little picture of crime and punishment in Spain and America. All told, Spain looks pretty good by comparison—with significantly less violent crime and far fewer people locked up in prisons. But all this doesn’t change the fact that I’m still missing my camera.


* According to this database, these numbers should be much higher. Apparently there is no government agency that collects statistics of this kind, or any mandate that the data get reported. So it is up to journalists and activists to do so. The database also contains lots of information on the factors that influence police violence.

** According to this article, police killing in America is far worse than in any other Western country. (The Guardian also collects its own statistics on police killings, which don’t quite match the above database, but it’s close.) The portrait that this article paints of American police violence is grim. My gut feeling is that the most likely way to explain this huge disparity is the presence of guns in America, though I’m sure this must be an oversimplification. The database above mentions several policies that are proven to reduce police killings, such as requiring that use of force be reported and that using deadly force be a last possible alternative. Considering America’s abysmal record in this regard, I think it’s clear that we should do something. We shouldn’t accept a situation as inevitable that does not exist elsewhere.