Pagus Oculensis

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Monasterio Uclés (Castilla-La Mancha)

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A budding almond.

Uclés is a village in Castilla-La Mancha, already populated around the time of the Pax Romana, which today has about 290 residents. The surrounding plains are layered with a summer patchwork of red dirt plots, olive and almond tree orchards, rows of elms and conifers, and the small Bedija river is lined with poplars. Today, in mid-July, yellow seas of sunflower fields spill over the hills and around the valleys.

From my window there is an almost constant swarm of cliff swallows and martins, popping in and out of little cracks in the old monastery walls.  There is a pair of Peregrine Falcons, seemingly devoted to each other, flying together, occasionally swooping high and holding themselves stationary in the warm updrafts, scanning the ground for rodents. Above them, dark brown Golden Eagles glide in patient circles.  In the evening, as the swallows fill the cracks of the old wall for the night, bats dart around in random flight patterns, scooping up flying bugs.

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Starry night under Uclés. Castilla-La Mancha.

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The fierce guard of an 13th Century windmill.

The monastery in Uclés was built on a promontory jutting out of a village, as most churches and holy places often are in the Iberian Peninsula. Every summer bus loads of children fill the common area of the monastery, organize in groups, and generally run and play and make a lot of noise for the month of July.  Apart from the irony of a Gothic church built in 1589 being the site for loudspeakers blaring something like Soulja Boy’s “Super Soak that Ho” for dancing 10-year-olds in, the place is actually an ideal location for a summer camp.

For generations, this was a seminary, a place filled with spaces of incredible silence, the right environment to nurture budding priests. The eastern facade of the monastery is designed in

Old men playing a loud, liquor-fueled game of cards in a local bar.

Old men playing a loud, liquor-fueled game of cards in a local bar.

an ornate Plateresque style. The other facades, in Herrerian. The village of Uclés was given to the Order of Santiago by King Alfonso VII, and they later built the monastery. There is much to be discovered in this very old place, and there are the ghost stories and myths that naturally arise from an old building like this, much less a religious one.  At times it feels awkward to participate in children’s camp activities in a 423-year-old building, as if we are defiling it or disrespecting it somehow, but when the children leave and the posters and loudspeakers have been taken down, silence returns, broken by the chirping of the swallows and the occasional tourist walking through the halls.

Today, I look out over the very plains that Cervantes used as a setting for his Don Quixote, through the oxidized metal bars fastened to my window, and in the distance, the bells of wandering sheep clink in the oppressive heat of the summer day.

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Mid-day in the summer, Castilla-La Mancha. The same terrain that Cervantes’ Don Quixote rode on his skinny horse.

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A view of the monastery through the ruins of an ancient windmill.

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Sitting Still

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Evening at the Palace in Aranjuez, swallows and martins flitting through the warm air.

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A dormant vinyard.. Elciego, La Rioja.

There is a sometimes disconcerting change that happens to a foreigner who remains in a place long. The color and novelties of a culture, the satisfaction of noticing the small ways of doing things that are different to one’s own, during what Hemingway called the “spectacle stage of appreciation”, are replaced by the an ever-growing saturation of practicality and expertise, a maturing, deeper knowledge of the host culture that slowly renders the childlike traveler into a grownup.

At times remaining stationary dulls the wonder and euphoria that travelers relish, but if he or she is smart, it can add weight to a story, or to the creation of fiction; it can add depth and credibility to a character sketch, and knowledge earned from a bit of sendentariness should be embraced.  A more keen eye can spot cliché and stereotype. Humor can be uncovered that is a smarter and more satisfying humor, even if understood by an ever-shrinking audience (i.e. at least marginally observant bilingual people).  I always walk a fine line between moaning and cultural exploration. I find there a rich environment for exposing the ridiculous while maintaining respect and admiration. It is a challenge that is stimulating.

Christopher Hitchens said that he kept and read “two sets of books,” meaning he fed from divergent points of view to enrich his knowledge of the world around him.  I seem to have always been stuck on the idea that novelty is the key to understanding the world, or at least the key to maintaining the desire to understand the world.  But as I become more rooted in this country, I still always feel like a foreigner here, in varying degrees, and it is rarely a bad thing.IMG_5125

My “two sets of books” entail both a search for material that supports my already formed opinion, and my openness to things that I would not normally embrace automatically, things or people that I simply do not understand.  Because there is usually some surprising enlightenment on the other side, a side which may be covered in decidedly less-green grass. Unless it is boring, I don’t consider mingling with the strange and unconventional, which can also be the overtly traditional, a waste of my time.  No, staying in one place hinders neither my craving for adventure and true world knowledge nor my ability to pursue it.

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Drawing the lines that limit the passage of the picadores, who ride on their heavily protected horses and lean forward to poke the bull between the shoulder blades with the pica. Plaza de Toros Las Ventas, Madrid.

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Sol and sombra. The warm afternoon of a May corrida. An exhausted bull stares at a matador moments before the volapié.

A fountain at the Royal Palace in Aranjuez.

A fountain at the Royal Palace in Aranjuez.

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The old wine cellars at the Bodega Marqués de Riscal. Some of the bottles in here are over 100 years old, mostly reserved for royalty and architects.

Project Madrid: Old and New

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In the constructions of cities, in particular European cities, an interested observer can see the framework and shapes of history.  In the context of photography, objects and scenes – a patch of sidewalk or the façade of a restaurant, or a landscape – can hold a meaning often so complex that it is lost by most who walk past. The hardened faces of Madrileños in the early 1900´s, the tragic scenes of the Spanish Civil War, horses and carriages trotting past what is now a bustling metropolis. For me, a particular joy of Madrid is the ease with which one can see how things looked 50 or more years ago, often simply by looking up. Much of the preservation is intentional conservation, as Madrid has mastered the mix of modernity and antiquity and has wisely invested heavily in its historical heritage. Also, much owes its existence to the often excruciatingly slow pace of change and renewal. One should resist complaining about the reasons for cultural preservation, but one should not resist contemplating  them. Some of the Spain´s cultural history involves pain and suffering and would just as soon be forgotten by many, and other histories are held on with every fiber of a families´ effort and being. Sometimes the comparison of the site of an old photograph to the present day gloriously shows the progress of mankind and our ability to improve our quality of life, and other times scenes of the past reveal a simpler and more beautiful, possibly innocent, age of novelty. History is recorderd, sometimes covered up and rewritten, and culture and tradition morph and die, to the dismay of the old and to the ambivalence of the young.  But there is hope that we will always have our buildings and their stories.

Photos to be added…

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Casa Mingo, 1935

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Puerta del Sol

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In front of the restaurant Lhardy, Carrera de San Jerónimo. 1940

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La Fuente del Neptuno, 1940´s

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Plaza Mayor, Guerra Civil

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Plaza Mayor, 1930´s

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Palacio del Congreso de los Diputados

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Old Wine on a Worthy Promontory

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margaux1There is something wholly satisfying in opening a bottle of wine classified as one of the Fifth Growths of the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855. It brings with it a sense of entitlement, privilege, and bit of justified snobbery. There is also something therapeutic in the vulgarity of enjoying it, guilt free, well after its date of maturity, and sitting in the trunk of a car at the edge of a cliff at the westernmost point of the European continent. My favorite places in the world are at its edges, and the distant crash of waves and the deep blue of the open ocean precipitate in me a sentimentality and traveler´s longing that I am always glad I haven´t lost.

I had been carrying this bottle of wine for so long, that it had become the oldest ofmargaux2 my material possessions (for more on this poor bottle´s life, click here). Since packing it in my backpack on a ferry near Cherbourg, France, in 1992, it had been searching for the right time and place to be opened.

At a place called Cabo da Roca, in Portugal, there is a dirt side-road where anyone can park at the end of the continent and gaze at the sea. It is often very windy, and one has the genuine feeling of being on the precipice of an important land mass. The top of the cliff is covered with a green carpet of iceplants, with the occasional pink flower protruded, twitching in the wind.

The Romans called it Promontorium Magnum, and during the Age of Sail it was labeled The Rock of Lisbon.  The giant granite blocks at the water´s edge look like slumping pieces of layer cake, revealing strata, like an open history book of millions of years of geological processes.

For me, next to the lighthouse, it was a place to partake in something at once very private and doubly enjoyed with someone special. Wine, of course, tastes better with company, and I have always hoped that I would drink my old bottle with someone.  And as I dug the corkscrew into the soft cork, I found an immense sense of gratitude, both for the freedom to travel as I do, and, simply, for the one whom I sat with in that cramped car trunk.

Under the tight foil wrap, there was a grey powder coating the top of the cork, showing the age of a bottle first filled with wine in 1982. The cork was so soft, I had to push it through, but it had the rich, oaky nose that I had hoped it would have.  And even at 14 years after its date of maturation, it still had a rich, complex taste, a worthy representative of the vineyards of its birth in the green acres of Chateau Dauzac.

I suppose now it is inevitable that I visit the Bordeaux region and explore the rolling hills of old growth vineyards, the birthplace of so many wines of incomparable quality.  In the meantime, I will try to appreciate all that is before me.  Cheers.

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The Cuckoo’s Nest: My Days in a Spanish Elementary School: Part 6

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Television and radio presenter Art Linkletter was an orphan who was moved from Canada as a child to live in San Diego, California. He was married for 74 1/2 years.  He was a major investor in the patented hula-hoop, without whom it may never have existed. During the Great Depression, he hitched on trains around the country, doing odd jobs. His personality and teethy television presence proved lucrative in the 1940´s, and his early show People Are Funny can arguably be said to be the prototype for today´s American entertainment show which relies almost solely on audience participation and gags.  Kids Say the Darnedest Things, an ending bit on his 1950´s program House Party (a great title for a show), featured his interviewing children, using his experience as a TV personality to set up kids to utter anecdotal bits that were comedy gems to adults. The interviews were gimmicky and surely did not justify more than a recurring bit, like Letterman´s ¨10 Things…¨, and at times, what is happening feels like that unfairness of making fun of a foreigner speaking broken English. Still, children are funniest when they say something that they feel is important, yet inappropriate or ironic. I just hope their creative abandon isn´t at all quelled by our laughing in their faces. Personally speaking from a teacher´s point of view, I try to laugh at them in the same way an audience laughs at a comedian; hopefully in a sort of empowering way, however superficial. In the interest of clarity, it should be said that I never interview kids in the hopes of getting something silly out of their mouths. It is tempting, I must say. Most of the quotes that I have written down result from questions in the cheerless speaking parts of quarterly exams.

The comedy of Art Linkletter´s kids proves how easy it is to come by. Just introduce a universal theme of some sort, and let them talk. Teacher´s anywhere can attest to kids´ accidental humor, yet they rarely seem to collect or recall them, or perhaps they are simply above writing them down for the benefit of a joke.  I am not above it.

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Me: “If an alien came to earth, what do you think he would do first?”
Student: “Well, it depends on the alien, but he probably first get rid of all the ugly people, then go see a movie.”

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Student (adult): “I eat very little fat from cows because it’s bad for the protestant gland, and I don’t need those kinds of problems.”

Me: “Even if you’re not Catholic, you might be a bit of a hypochondriac.”

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 “Well, I think in America there are a few hard questions and a lot of easy answers.”

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¨Have you ever been eaten by a shark?¨

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¨Teacher, why don´t you have any babies?¨

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Me: “Why does Spain have a low natural growth rate?”

6th grader: “I guess they don’t do the amor so much.”

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Me: “What’s the opposite of messy?

Student: “Ronaldo?”

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Me: “Repeat after me–helicopter.”
Student: “hemicopter.”
“No, it’s helicopter.”
“Helpicoper.”
“No, hel-i-copter.”
“Hemicopper.”
“Helicopter.”
“Oh, harrypotter!”
“No, helicopter.”
“Teacher, I think I need a psychologist.”

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A 11-year-old´s poignant rendering of me on Mondays. And Wednesdays, or Fridays and Tuesdays.

“Victoria do you like Pablo?”
“No way!”
“Well, why did you give him a kiss?”
“Oh, I was just practicing for another boy that I like.”

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Student: “Are you the protagonista in that show Glee?”
Me: “Sure.”

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“Teacher I feel like a sloth today that needs to be released to the jungle.”
“Do you feel lazy?”
“No, not really. I just wanted to use the word sloth.”

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Student: “Profe, tienes ojos tan bonitos. El mismo color que los ciegos.”

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Feeling good about yourself? Have a kid draw a picture of you.

Student: “What’s inside your throat?” (Pointing at my Adam’s apple)
Me: “I got a chicken leg stuck in there.”
Student: “Well, I guess you should be a vegenarian.”

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Child: Do you have a wife?
Me: No.
Child: Why don’t you buy one?
Me: Good question.
Child: I know.