Friday, February 24, 2012

El mundo es un pañuelo

The Spanish equivalent of "It's such a small world" is "El mundo es un pañuelo," which means "The world is a handkerchief." Isn't that such a great image? All of us living on a tiny white handkerchief, knowing each other, however distantly, constantly finding and marveling at serendipitous connections. During my time in Spain I've had some pretty serious "El mundo es un pañuelo" moments. I'll share them as often as I can get them written. The first one is on its way, and it's a whopper...

A Weekend Adventure

A few weekends ago I went to Asturias, the next province to the west of Cantabria, with some friends on a little day trip. We went to see a cave called el Pindal, which full of paleolithic paintings. These included depictions of a fish and a mammoth, which are very rare in cave paintings in this area, if you were wondering. But I suppose I should talk about this day chronologically, so you will have to wait a minute til I get to the cave part (or scroll down, if you are that excited about paleolithic cave art. That's you, mom.)

First we stopped for lunch in Cerrazo, a tiny, typical Cantabrian village near Torrelavega, the city where I work. The restaurant is really popular because it's a) cheap, and b) has great food, and they don't take reservations, so we got there a little early, in fact, that the kitchen wasn't open. That's ok, we'll just go for a nice stroll through the village. Now I should mention that EVERY. TIME we leave the city I make a huge annoying point of going to find ponies, because there are inevitably some pastured nearby. My friends are very good about humoring this particular quirk of mine. I even have a "pony kit" ready to go, which I have never once remembered to bring along. It includes two brushes, one hard, one soft (I bought them at the supermarket and I'm pretty sure they were meant for shoe cleaning), a sugar cube stealthily stolen from a bar, and a carrot. Well, actually, the carrot is in there on kind of a rotating basis, because they were getting all shriveled up and smelly between pony excursions.

So we walked down the hill from the restaurant, and sure enough! We found two horsies in a beautiful field. The seemed pretty uninterested in us, though, and my friends were ready to continue along the country lane. "Oh pish posh," I said. "Let me show you a little pony trick I know." I pulled out a packet of kleenex from my bag and wrinkled the plastic wrapper. This method is not very honest, because it makes the pony think he is going to get a peppermint or other similarly cellophane-wrapped treat. But it is a tried-and-true way of luring ponies closer to fences to be petted. And this proves its effectiveness is international. Sure enough, this nice, dirty, stocky grey pony lumbered over, ears perked up and looking for a candy. I apologized for tricking him but soon learned he felt pretty OK about it, and was happy to be scratched and patted. My friends were very shocked at this: what can I say, my horse powers are finely tuned. They even called me the horse whisperer! We spent a little while with this nice fellow, and my friends found it hilarious that he was pretty lippy, meaning he let me play with his nose and he made funny faces and yawned big great yawns, and let me kiss the soft, velvet spot between his nostrils. My friends eventually got a little bored (I would happily have stayed there all afternoon), so we continued up the road. This is our parting glimpse of my pony friend:

As we walked along we passed a few farms, and one had a big, muddy pen in the back yard. We found some sheep huddled in a shed, looking stranded in a sea of muck. And in another such refuge:

He/she is destined, I'm sure, to be chorizo, jamón, lomo, or salchichón one day. Such is the life cycle of a Spanish pig. 

We went back up the hill and had a lovely lunch -- I'll do an entry on food later on, so you can get familiar with all the jargon -- including raciones of morcilla (blood sausage, don't you turn your nose up, it is delicious), piping hot clams with olive oil, garlic, parsley, and hot peppers, and a cheese plate. For our main course we split a whole white fish cooked in the oven with potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and peppers, and a steak with french fries and roasted red peppers. I didn't eat much steak, not being a big red meat person, and especially not being a very, very rare red meat person. But I can appreciate the quality and preparation of the meat here, especially this steak. It was cooked on a super hot grill with nothing but salt and maybe a little oil. Everything was spectacular. Spanish food really is great. To drink I had a glass of red wine, one friend had a beer, and we all had water and mosto, a very sweet grape juice made as a bi-product of (? or maybe just in the same facility as) wine.

Then we drove just over the border into Asturias, where we drove up a hill to a tiny resort village at the top of a ridge overlooking the sea. Since we had time to kill before our cave appointment, we went to a lookout and took a brief walk down a very steep hill leading down to cliffs, and eventually to the ocean. The sun was coming out from behind the clouds, and even though the water here is far from tropical, it always has that turquoise tinge to it that I associate with much warmer climes. I snapped a few pictures of my friend Leah venturing down in front of us, and got this one of the sun shining full on her. I love the way her little red hat makes her stand out in the vast landscape she's a part of. I am no photographer, and my camera is a piece of crap, but sometimes by sheer luck a nice picture gets produced.

The cave was down the hill towards the sea. We walked through a forest of stunted trees with gnarled roots coming up out of the ground, and down a narrow staircase carved into the cliff on the other side. 

It opens up to a view of the ocean, a very Pirates-of-the-Caribbean scene with a huge rock that looks like it grew right up out of the ocean.

The cave tour was just the four of us with the guide, and we walked deep into the cave, along wet, dripping paths that wound between thick stalagmites. It was mostly dark and muddy in the cave, but the guide turned on low lights and carried a flashlight so we could see the drawings and carvings he pointed out on the walls. I've been to a number of caves in this part of Spain, some with drawings, some with incredible rock and crystal formations. I never get tired of seeing the drawings on the walls, and imagining the people who made them. Twelve thousand years ago. Twelve thousand. You know Christ? How he lived two thousand years ago? Yeah, go back another ten thousand from then. These people lived in caves, but not this one, because it opens directly onto the ocean and is very cold and wet. But they went deep into el Pindal to paint on the walls with an iron oxide compound they mixed with animal fat; that made the lines absorb into the porous rock, so that they haven't faded over time and are just as vibrant (the experts think) as they were back then. The people -- probably the shaman or holy men, but no one knows for sure -- painted bison and horses and, as I mentioned above, a fish and a mammoth. They used the rock itself as part of the drawings, so that the heads of some of the drawn bison protrude like the real animal, or the curve of a horse's haunch is clear in a crack in the stone. 

There are also abstract marks that can be found in caves all over the north of Spain and into the south of France; scientists think they could have been some kind of mutually understood communication system between the many tribes that used the network of caves along the coast of the Bay of Biscay, or that the tribes shared a religion and the marks represent some spiritual meaning. It's incredible that modern man can know so much about these ancient people, but there is still so much we'll never know, and it's so thrilling for me to imagine what it could have been like. What the people were like, what they wore, what they looked like, how it felt to live so very long ago. That's one of the things about Spain that make it so mysterious and awe-inspiring -- the ancient, ancient history that surrounds us every day here, that can be seen just about anywhere, and the influence it's had on the way we live now.

As we left the cave not too much happened: one friend and I went into the woods in lieu of a bathroom; I almost lost one of the beautiful green mittens my Granny gave me years ago; and a woman with a siamese cat on a leash came to ask for information about the cave:

The cat was really unhappy about being on a leash and didn't really seem to understand that he was supposed to walk along with the woman -- so mostly she alternated between holding him like a limp ragdoll or heaving on the leash while he dug in his claws and wailed.

We stopped for a drink in Llanes, a pretty little beach town just before the border of Cantabria, and took a walk along the sea wall as the sun set behind the mountains opposite the ocean. 


We wanted to get a snack in Llanes, but nothing was open, so we moved along from town to town looking for a bar whose kitchen was preparing food. All we found was a rest stop off the highway, where we ate potato chips. Then we drove home. Just a normal end to a normal weekend day trip. You can see more pictures here.

Monday, February 20, 2012

City Living

Before I came to Spain, I had never lived in a city, in an apartment before. Sure, my senior year of college I lived on the third floor of a giant house that had been made into apartments, but it just felt like a house. And in Argentina, and Spain the first time, I stayed in apartments with other people in big buildings with elevators and doormen and views of Buenos Aires or Salamanca. But living here now, in the same apartment for just about three years, I've really begun to see what life is like when lived in close quarters.

It's strange to live with these people, but not really know them -- I suppose it's just a new relationship for me. Growing up in a house with a big yard in a tiny town, I knew most of the neighbors, at least by sight if not by name. But I really knew nothing about them. They didn't know where I went to school, how old I was, what my family ate for dinner. Everyone was separate. Here in the city, though, because everyone is all stacked on top of one another, you can't help but find out things about the people living around you. Like the couple downstairs who fight on Saturday mornings and slam doors and yell, and who once burned a piece of toast so badly that my whole apartment filled up with smoke and I thought the building was on fire. And the guy from choir who lives on the third floor but works in Bilbao and wouldn't share his internet password with me. And the people who just moved in on the second floor who have a little girl, who I think is the only kid in the building. Most prominent is the woman whose apartment shares the fifth floor with mine, up under the eaves, and her awful, awful boyfriend. But the escapades with them are another story for another entry. (Yes, there is that much to tell.)

At first I was really embarrassed about everything I did in my apartment, embarrassed about making noise and worried about bothering people with my singing or my music or the TV. I tiptoed to my dresser early in the mornings so as not to wake anyone up -- you can hear everything between my bedroom and my neighbor's, hence all the problems -- and when I had guests I begged them to tread softly and keep their voices down. But now I've gotten more used to it. I can't limit my life because of other people, especially when they most certainly are not thinking of how much noise they're making and how it affects me.

But everything is just so close! I see people on the stairs and we say hello, no more, and in my head I'm screaming I know you fight and throw things on Saturday mornings! I know you eat dinner at midnight! I can hear when you pull the blinds of your bedroom up first thing in the morning!  It's so strange. To know some of the most intimate things about people and not even know their names. When I'm out walking around the city, I still find myself looking up at the apartment buildings and picturing it like a Richard Scarey drawing, with one wall of the building taken off and a view into everyone's separate, but very proximate lives. In this apartment they're having a snack in the kitchen; in the one next door they're watching TV; downstairs someone is in the shower; in the attic a little old man is talking to his cat. (Oh man I wish I had a cat.) If the walls weren't there they could reach out and touch each other; yet everyone is going about their own business like they're miles away from everyone else.

I'm not sure if this kind of living is for me, in the long run. I love living in the city for now: my friends are nearby, there are bars to go to and concerts to see and if I run out of eggs there's a little store directly across the street. It actually takes me longer to walk down the stairs from my apartment than it does to get from my front door to the store. There's shopping two blocks away and cafes with terraces and my favorite Turkish bartender who gives me free drinks just downtown. But I think it's all too close. Too weird. Unnatural. Give me a front door that opens onto grass, and space for a garden, and room for dogs to run. Somewhere I don't have to listen to my awful neighbor yelling at 7am about what color sweater he should wear. No one cares, champ. No one at all.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Favorite Song Fridays V

John Mayer, "The Heart of Life" 
An iPod on shuffle can be a wonderful thing. Sometimes it's like that little machine is reading my mind and my heart, or that it knows even better than I do what I want to hear, what I need to hear. I was tucked up in my bed, doing some late-night writing earlier this week when this song came on. It had been a long time since I'd heard it, but after that lovely surprise playing it's been on repeat for most of this week. 

On principle I don't much like John Mayer - he seems to be the typical case of a "sensitive", talented singer-songwriter letting fame and money go to his head. Now he just seems like a dick. But I can't deny that I love that smoky, husky voice of his, and his songwriting really is quite good. His melodies are interesting but catchy, and always very pretty. His lyrics are touching, and they're different and creative enough to save them from being overly cheesy.

I think I like this song because it's simple, but has a beautiful melody, a soothing guitar rhythm. All of that reminds me a little of growing up at folk festivals, being obliged (not too unwillingly) to sing at family jam sessions. There something about a pretty tune sung in a pleasing voice accompanied by little more than acoustic guitar that just gets right down into my soul. And even though the electric guitar in this song takes away from that a little bit, that feeling is still there.

This song first came to me on a mix CD from a now-long-lost friend while we were in college. Hearing it again reminded me so much of her and the friendship we had -- we went through quite a bit in our respective lives while we were close and supported each other unquestioningly throughout. It makes me sad, though, to think that the friendship is lost.

The lyrics speak to me on a lot of levels -- I've been through the ringer over the last few months -- no, not just the ringer. The washing machine, the ringer, the dryer, the iron, the press, the many other violent laundry metaphors are there? Anyway, the words mean a lot to me at the moment. First came the crises, one after another, beating my heart to a pulp; then came the grief, the absolute misery, and helplessness. And while things are not back to normal by any means, I'm making plans for the future and finding things to look forward to. I'm enjoying the small things in my life that make me happy. February is always the toughest month, you've got to be resourceful.

And this song has reminded me of a person who was very dear to me at one point. I've hesitated about getting back in touch for a long time -- grudges and hard feelings don't die easily -- and especially because "Hi, remember me? My life is absolute shit because of x,y, and z, want to be friends again?" doesn't make the nicest first contact. But as a mutual friend said recently, if anyone would appreciate an email like that it would be her. So maybe in light of recent losses in my life, it's time to start gaining again. And if I've learned anything from living abroad and going through the hell of the last few months, it's that true "kindred spirits" (to quote Anne of Green Gables) are few and far between in this life -- so hold on to them when they come into your life, and fight your hardest to get them back if they slip away. "The Heart of Life" has to be good, after all, doesn't it?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Pretty Things in Spain V

Some beautiful ponies having a nice swim (well, stroll) in the ocean last spring at Somo beach, across the bay.

Favorite Song Fridays IV

 Feist, "Now at Last"
While I was home this summer I went to a coffeehouse-type gig with my mom, where she plays some Sundays with a group of friends of hers. She wasn't playing that day, so we ate bagels and sat in the cafe to listen. A friend of hers was there, and he proved quite obnoxious, talking through the songs and bragging about his musical ability and knowledge. My mom mentioned that I sang jazz (sometimes), and he looked down his nose at me: "Oh really? Well, what old standards do you sing?" I don't keep a set list ready in my mind to sell my singer-self to people on the spot, so I said something like "Off the top of my head...I don't know...I do most of the old standards, and the ones I don't have prepared I can fake pretty OK..." After more pressing I mentioned "Moonlight Becomes You," "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," and "The Nearness of You." At the last he scoffed, triumphant in his arrogance: "Well nowadays all the young people do that since Norah Whats-Her-Name [Jones] did it." Um no, sorry sir. I have been singing that song since I was about 12 and could figure out the chord progressions in my jazz fakebook. 

Anyway, this little rant serves as a very long introduction to today's song, which is not a very well-known old jazz tune but has all the feeling of a favorite. This is probably because it was written by Bob Haymes, who also wrote "That's All," which has been done by the likes of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, and more recently, Michael Buble. 

This past fall I was listening to "Now at Last" pretty much nonstop, and was itching to get my fingers on a piano keyboard to accompany myself once I got home for Christmas. Sure enough, I spent many hours playing piano and singing while I was home for the holidays, and this has quickly become one of my all-time favorite "old standards." The song is so very simple and traditional, but so beautiful and unexpected at the same time. I love the way Feist sings it -- I think she does it wonderful justice, no frills, no belting, just the gorgeous melody with a healthy dose of the melancholy with which the lyrics and tune are infused. She is one of my very favorite artists these days -- so creative, original, talented, and fun -- and became even more of a preferred and respected artist once I found this little gem on her 2004 album "Let it Die."