Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Tremor in Mexico

My friend Alejandro just called me a short time ago to tell me that there was a minor earthquake in Mexico this afternoon.  The quake occurred at 1:25 (Central time).  It was centered near Zijuatanejo on the Pacific coast and measured 5.4 on the Richter scale.

Sirens in Mexico City sounded, and the app that Alejandro has on his phone warned him of the quake.  He left the ground floor office where he works and went out to the street.  However, he did not feel anything, and neither did his parents.  A cousin who works in a high rise building, however, did feel it strongly.

I find it interesting how people in Mexico City immediately call their family and friends even when there is an insignificant tremor.  I suppose it is a very natural reaction for those who survived the "big one" of 1985.

I wonder if people in California react the same way?

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Eclipse that Wasn't

I was hoping to attempt to photograph last night's much publicized eclipse.  A couple years ago I managed to get some half-way decent pictures of a lunar eclipse while I was in Mexico.

Although the weather forecast was not promising, my hopes rose when yesterday turned out to be a pleasant, mostly sunny day.  However, in the late afternoon the clouds rolled in.

In the early evening I was on the phone with Alejandro.  I asked him if he was going to be able to see the eclipse in Mexico City.  He said, "No".  It was cloudy there and the forecast called for rain all night.  While we were talking I stepped outside.  My hopes rose when I saw that there were breaks in the cloud cover.

I went outside with my camera several times between 9 and 11 PM.  The breaks were nowhere near where the moon was rising in the east. 

So, I have no photos of the "red moon".  All I got was this picture of the moonlight filtering through a thin spot in the clouds.

Did any of my readers have better luck viewing the eclipse?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Art on the Bridge

For a number of years I was a member of the Berea Fine Arts Club, an organization based in the neighboring city of Berea, Ohio, which encourages local artists.  Each year the club holds several shows at which members and other artists can display and sell their work.  I was participating in at least three shows each year.  Now and then I would sell a painting, but I would always sell quite a few smaller objects such as hand-painted Christmas ornaments and cards.

When I started spending more time traveling, I left the club, because I didn't have the time to contribute to the work of the club or to participate in the shows.

One of the shows which the club holds every autumn is Art on the Bridge.  The event is held in my hometown of Olmsted Falls.  Artists set up their displays of art on the covered bridge in the center of town as well as along the path leading to the bridge.  Yesterday I went to see the show. 

There are in Ohio many covered bridges dating from the 1800s.   This bridge, however, was built in the 1990s to enhance the picturesque atmosphere of Olmsted Falls.  (The northeastern corner of Ohio where I live is known as the Western Reserve.  After the American Revolution this area was set aside for war veterans from the state of Connecticut.  As a result there are many towns here that have a "New England" feel, and Olmsted Falls is a prime example.)

(Looking down from the bridge at the park below)
More the a dozen artists had set up for the show, and there was a variety of artwork...  paintings, photography, pottery, wood-carvings, jewelry, etc.
Water color paintings done by a friend of mine who is a long-time member of the club.
I had a chance to chat with members that I know from my time in the club.  The weather was very cooperative... mostly sunny with warm temperatures.  It was a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Perils of Translation

The picture below was sent to me by my friend Alejandro.

Translation from one language to another can be a risky business.  On the Pope's recent visit to Cuba, someone wanted to make a welcome banner in English.  Unfortunately the Spanish word for Pope... "Papa"... also has a completely different meaning... potato.  The result of the well-intentioned but botched translation is seen below.

(photo from the web)

One of my former students did a bit of investigating and discovered that the picture had been "photoshopped".
Oh, well, it still points out how easy it is to make a translation blunder.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Cultural Differences - the Bathroom

Whenever you travel to another country you will find differences in the culture.  There will be countless little things that will be different from the way things are at home. You can embrace or at least accept those differences and thus enjoy your foreign visit, or you can whine that things are not the way they are in the United States.  The whiners are usually the ones who get labeled as "ugly Americans".  If they want everything to be the same, they should probably just stay at home.

I was thinking about some of the differences in Spain, and I realized that there are a number of things that are different about Spanish bathrooms.  I write this tongue in cheek, and sincerely hope that I do not come across as one of the "whiners"!  (Likewise, I hope that this post does not come across as too scatological!)

The most obvious difference is that curious, toilet-like contraption known as a bidet.  Three of the four hotels where I stayed in Spain had one in the bathroom.  I will admit that the very first time I traveled to Spain, way back in the 70s, I was mystified by its presence.  I will simply say that if that part of my body is that dirty, I will just take a shower.

When I travel to another country, I usually take a washcloth with me.  In Europe, and most of the time in Mexico, you will not find a washcloth in the bathroom.  I know that in other countries, a washcloth is viewed as very unsanitary.  But I really don't feel clean just using my hand when I shower, and how are luffa sponges or those poofy things any less unsanitary?  On this latest trip to Spain I forgot to pack a washcloth.  One of the hotels had a small, clean towel hanging next to the bidet.  I used that instead.  At the other hotels I used one of the hand towels.  I hope that the wet towel hanging in the shower didn't gross out the chambermaids.  (They took the wet towels and replaced them daily.)

Another thing which I forgot to take with me is a bar of soap.  Even when I travel in the United States I take one because I hate those tiny bars they give you in hotels.  When I realized that had forgotten to bring soap, I went over to the "Corte Inglés" department store.  Generally "Corte Inglés" will have anything that you might need, but I could not find anything similar to a bar of Dial soap.  The bars of soap were all perfumed beauty soaps.  Europeans prefer shower gels, and several of my hotels had dispensers of gel in the shower stall.  However, those gels never seem to produce a good lather.

Oh well, as I said, you must simply accept and adapt to the differences.  One thing, however, about which I will vociferously complain are the lights in Spanish restrooms.  The Spanish, like other Europeans, are much more energy efficient than we are, and that is laudable.  But when you go into a restroom the lights are often timed to go off automatically.   If it takes you a while in the WC, you are left in the dark.  I remember on one trip I was sitting there when I was suddenly plunged into total darkness.  In that restroom the lights were operated by a motion sensor.  I was waving my arms to turn on the lights again.  On my latest trip in one of the restrooms the lights stayed on for an especially short interval.  I had to keep getting up and turning on the switch again!  ¡Ay, ay, ay!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Tragic Anniversary

Yesterday I was talking on the phone with my friend Alejandro who lives in Mexico City.  He mentioned that it was the thirtieth anniversary of the tragic earthquake which struck the city in 1985.  Although his neighborhood suffered only minor damage from the quake, he remembers that event and its aftermath very well.  I suspect that every resident of the city who lived through those days has indelible memories of the catastrophe.  I was at the time a young Spanish teacher who had already made several trips to Mexico.  I clearly remember how I was glued to television reports and grieved for the death and destruction wrought by the quake. 

Thirty years later the residents of the city are, I believe, very observant of the earth's movements and still fear another "big one".  On three occasions I have been in the city during minor tremors.  I have seen how the people rush to the streets at the first sign of a quake.  On the worst of those three, on Good Friday of 2014, I joined them and rushed out of the apartment where I was staying.  I could feel the pavement beneath my feet quivering.

Mexico City, unlike San Francisco or Los Angeles, is not located near any major fault line.  But the city's unique geology makes it susceptible to quakes.  The central portion of the city is built on what was once lakebed, and the spongy soil amplifies tremors that might be centered hundreds of miles away.

On the morning of September 19, 1985, an earthquake with a magnitude of 8 on the Richter Scale occurred.  The epicenter was off Mexico's Pacific coast more than 200 miles away from Mexico City.  It was felt as far away as Houston, Texas.  Most everyone has heard of the Richter Scale, but while doing some reading about the quake I learned that there is another scale used to measure the earth's movements.  The Mercalli Intensity Scale measures the effects of a quake on the earth's surface.  The scale ranges from I (not felt) to XIII (complete destruction).  The Mexico City quake measured IX on the scale, and was classified as violent.  It was the worst earthquake in Mexico's recorded history.

Mexico City was devastated, especially in the central area built on the old lake bottom.  412 buildings completely collapsed and another 3000 were severely damaged.  The death toll will never be known.  Around 5000 bodies were recovered from the rubble.  Death estimates run as high as 45,000, but the most widely accepted figure is 10,000.

The response by the government was widely criticized.  Much of the rescue operation was organized by the residents themselves.  It is often said that the quake was a turning point in which the Mexican people lost confidence in the ruling political party (PRI) which had controlled the country since the Mexican Revolution.

(image from the web)

Quakes and tremors will always be a part of life in Mexico City, but I hope that it never again suffers a disaster of the magnitude of 1985.


Friday, September 18, 2015

The Route of St. James

During my recent trip to Spain I mentioned that the cities of Burgos and León are major stops along the "Camino de Santiago"... referred to in English as the Route of St. James or the Way of St. James.  In the Middle Ages it was one of most important pilgrimages that a devout Christian could make, along with a journey to Jerusalem or Rome.

For those readers who are unfamiliar with the "Camino", I thought I would write in more detail about that route.

First of all, in Spanish, St. James the Apostle is called Santiago.  This comes from the old Spanish name for James... "Iago". 

The pilgrimage route has many branches, but the main path extends over 450 miles.  It begins in southern France, crosses the Pyrenees Mountains, and then extends across the breadth of northern Spain to the shrine of St. James in the city of Santiago de Compostela.

(image taken from the web)
Today the route attracts up to 200,000 people each year... not just religious pilgrims, but also hikers and tourists seeking a unique travel experience trekking across the scenic Spanish countryside.  It takes about a month to travel the entire path, although many choose to hike just a portion of the route.  Basic, inexpensive accommodations for pilgrims are located at intervals of about fifteen miles.

The story behind this route is a fantastical legend with no historical documentation.  Even the Vatican admits that it may have no basis in fact. 

According to the legend, the Apostle James made a missionary journey to Hispania (as Spain was known in Roman times), and was responsible for the first converts to Christianity there.  James then returned to Judea where he was arrested and beheaded.  His body was recovered, with his head miraculously restored, and taken to a ship made of stone and manned by angels.  The ship transported his body across the Mediterranean, through the Straits of Gibraltar, and up to the northwestern corner of Spain.  There the saint was buried.

Fast forward nearly eight centuries.  The tiny Christian kingdom of Asturias in northern Spain was struggling to repulse the Moorish invaders.  In A.D. 812 a hermit saw a bright star hovering over an empty field.  There the long forgotten grave of St. James was discovered, and a shrine was built on the spot.  A few years later, during a battle between the Christians and the Moors, the saint was seen descending from heaven on a white horse and slaying the Moors by the thousands.  Henceforth, St. James was known as Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor Slayer).  During the centuries of the Reconquest, the Christian Spaniards fought under the banner of Santiago, and James became the patron saint of Spain. 

St. James depicted as the Moor Slayer on a church in León
The church built over the saint's supposed grave became a place of pilgrimage.  The town of Santiago de Compostela grew up around the shrine.  ("Compostela'  derives from the Latin for "Field of the Star" or alternately from the Latin for "burial ground".)  By 1075 work began on a cathedral on the site.  The original Romanesque cathedral saw later Gothic and baroque additions.
(image from the web)

The symbol of St. James became the scallop shell.  One legend tells that when the ship bearing the saint's body approached the coast, a wedding was going on.  The groom was on horseback.  When the horse saw the ship, it was spooked and plunged over the cliff into the ocean with the rider.  Both the groom and the horse miraculously survived, and when they emerged from the water they were covered in seashells. 
When I was in León I noticed that metal images of the scallop shell were imbedded in the sidewalks along the pilgrims' route.

Pilgrims will also carry on their person a scallop shell.  This pilgrim in León had a shell attached to his backpack.

I am not a religious person, but I do admit that the idea of hiking the "Camino" is intriguing.  However, at my age, I don't think trekking fifteen miles a day for a month is a possibility.  I have never been to Santiago de Compostela, but it is definitely on my list of places to visit on a future trip to Spain.  

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Home Again, Home Again

Yesterday I made the long journey home from Spain.  I was up at 7:00 AM Madrid time (1:00 AM Cleveland time), and I was home by 9:00 PM Cleveland time (3:00 AM Madrid time).  A long day!

The flight from Madrid to Washington Dulles Airport went well.  Although we hit a fair amount of turbulence, we arrived only five minutes late.  Immigration and customs at Dulles have been streamlined, and it only took about fifteen minutes to get through both.  But just as I was beginning to think that Dulles was a model of efficiency, I hit the line to go back through security. I have never seen a line that long for security at any airport!  My boarding pass allowed me to use "TSA Pre", the quicker and easier security checkpoint... but there was no "TSA Pre" line there. 

The couple that sat next to me on the flight from Madrid had only an hour layover before catching their flight home to Denver.  People were allowing them to cut ahead in line, but I still doubt that they made their connection.  This is why I am always paranoid about scheduling a layover of at least two hours when I book flights.

I walked a long way to the gate for my flight to Cleveland.  Although we boarded on time, we sat at the gate for a while after the scheduled departure time.  Then when we were on the runway awaiting our turn to take off, the pilot announced that we would have to go back to the gate.  (Apparently a warning light came on.)   They were not sure if we would have to deplane or not, but the mechanic was able to resolve the problem in a fairly short amount of time.  We did not have to get off the plane.  We arrived in Cleveland over an hour late... not a big deal, but by that time I was very weary, and eager to get home.

All in all it was a very good trip.  Although I would not rank the three new cities that I visited in Spain as my favorites, they were all very interesting, and I saw some impressive sights.  Now I am at home until my next trip... back to Mexico City in November. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Final Post from Madrid

I have written some negative comments about dining experiences on this trip, but I am happy to report that my final meal in Spain was very good.

I went to a little restaurant just a stone's throw from my cousin's place called "Casa Perico".  Yes, the menu includes many things I don't care for (shellfish, tripe), but there were also a lot of tempting items on the menu.

I started with one of my favorite Spanish dishes, "pisto", which is a Spanish version of ratatouille.  This restaurant added a fried egg on top as a special touch.  Very tasty!

For my main course I had "albóndigos a la andaluza".  The English menu at the entrance described it as "smashed meatballs in a Andalucian sauce".  The sauce was made from peppers, saffron and almonds.  It was very good also.  (Yes, I know that meatball is spelled "albóndiga" with an "a", but for some reason this was spelled with an "o".)

For dessert I had "natillas" which is similar to creme brulee.  Yummy!

An excellent meal, and a restaurant to visit again on my next trip to Madrid!

My flight back to the United States leaves tomorrow morning at 11:35.
Now it is time to say...

 ¡Adiós, España!
¡Adiós, Madrid!


Last Day of Sightseeing

This morning after a breakfast of "tortilla", "churros" and "café con leche" at my favorite place, I set out to do a bit more sightseeing on my last day in Madrid.

I walked to the Salamanca neighborhood, one of the most exclusive districts in central Madrid.  In the 1800s the historic center of Madrid was bursting at the seams.  The government authorized that the city's old defensive walls be torn down and that city be expanded.  Salamanca, named after the Marquis of Salamanca who was involved in its development, became the favored area for the elite of Madrid.  With its straight, tree-lined streets and Parisian-style architecture it was the antithesis of the crowded labyrinth of the old town.

The neighborhood begins near the Gate of Alcalá, a ceremonial entry built by the 18th century King Carlos III.

Running north from the Gate of Alcalá is Serrano Street, the city's poshest shopping street.  It is lined with expensive designer shops.

The reason for my trip to Salamanca was obviously not to shop at Cartier or Giorgio Armani.  I continued walking down Serrano Street to a museum which I had not visited before. .. the Lázaro Galdiano Museum.

Lázaro Galdiano was a wealthy financier and publisher.  He was also a passionate art collector.  In the early 20th century he built an elegant mansion on Serrano Street.  When he died in 1947, he bequeathed the residence and his art collection to the State.  The four story house is filled with paintings, sculptures and decorative arts.


The collection is quite impressive, although of course it cannot begin to compare with Madrid's top museum, the Prado.  There are works by some of the Spanish masters.

There are a couple paintings by El Greco.

Although Zurbarán was a 17th century painter, this portrait of a saint looks starkly modern.

There are a couple paintings by Goya on display.

Goya was Galdiano's favorite, and the ceiling of one of the mansion's rooms is painted as an homage to the artist.

The collection also includes works by Flemish, German and French painters.  Because of the historic enmity between Spain and the Netherlands, Dutch painters are usually shunned, but Galdiano acquired a number of works by Dutch painters for his collection.  There is even a painting by the American Gilbert Stuart (whom we all know for his portrait of George Washington.)

After leaving the museum, I walked back along the Paseo de la Castellana, the broad, tree lined boulevard that is the main north-south thoroughfare in Madrid.  It is comparable to the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City.

Like the Reforma, the Paseo de la Castellana is studded with monuments...

... the most prominent of which is the monument to Christopher Columbus.


Family Time

Regular readers may recall that I have a cousin from the Swiss side of my family who lives in Madrid.  When I arrived in Madrid two weeks ago, cousin Werner and his husband Manuel were in Switzerland.  Luckily, they were both at home yesterday, and I was able to spend the day with them.  I say luckily because lately Werner has been out of town a great deal.  He is the owner of a small translation business, and he frequently has assignments in various cities throughout Europe.  He is also renting out the old family home in Switzerland as a vacation rental, so he goes back often to prepare the house for tenants.  On Saturday, he returned from a trip to Barcelona, and tomorrow he will fly to Switzerland and then on to Munich. 

Their apartment is a five minute walk from my hotel.  I went over there around noon, and I just hung out at  their place all day.   We talked and talked at times in Spanish (especially in Manuel's presence) and at times in English (Werner is fluent in four languages).  In the evening Werner fixed a tasty supper for us.  It was 11:00 PM before we finally said good night, and I walked back to my hotel.

I was great to see Werner and Manuel again, and nice to have a relaxing day just sitting around at their place.

Today is my last full day in Madrid.  Tomorrow I fly home.  It seems that my two weeks in Spain have flown by!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Museum of Ham

This afternoon I left Valladolid and traveled by train back to Madrid for the last few days of my trip.

After settling into my hotel, I went out to buy some last minute gifts.  I headed toward the Puerta del Sol, the plaza that is the heart of the city.  But the Puerta del Sol was impassable because they were having a huge rally against cruelty to bulls.  The issue of outlawing bullfighting is a very controversial topic in Spain.  I can see both sides of the argument, but I tend to be more on the anti-bullfighting side.  However the speaker at the rally was screeching at the top of her lungs.  She was so annoying that it almost made me want to tell her to "shut up". 

I detoured around the plaza and by six o'clock I had finished my shopping.  I had not eaten since breakfast so I hungry.  But it was way too early for supper. In Spain most restaurants don't even reopen until 8:30 or 9:00 PM.  And then right in front of me there it was... "El Museo del Jamón" (The Museum of Ham).  "El Museo del Jamón" is a chain of shops in Madrid that sells (what else?) ham, but it is also a restaurant.  You are not going to get a gourmet meal here, but if you're in the mood for ham, it's a great place for a light meal.  

I mentioned in a previous post the "jamón ibérico de bellota"... made from free-range pigs that have a diet of acorns.  It's very expensive.  As you can see from the sign, it costs 30 euros per kilo... or about 15 dollars per pound.  It always amazes Americans when they see the hams hanging from the ceiling unrefrigerated.  Notice also the cones attached at the bottoms to catch any drippings.

Much less expensive, but still tastier than the ham in the United States is "jamón serrano".

The stand-up bar (where you eat more cheaply) was jammed with people, both locals and tourists.  I went upstairs to the dining room which was fairly crowded also.  I have not eaten many vegetables on the trip so I ordered the Iberian salad.

The salad featured a couple rounds of Spanish cheese (I don't know what kind of cheese it was, but it was tasty) and several slices of "jamón ibérico."

I was thinking about ordering dessert, but then I remembered... my favorite pastry shop was just down the street!

"La Mallorquina" has been selling sweet treats on the Puerta del Sol since 1894.  Fortunately the rally on the plaza was over... but it seemed as if everyone went to the pastry shop afterwards!  It was even more jammed than "El Museo del Jamón"!  But I made my way through the crowd and ordered a chocolate "Napolitana".  Yum!!!!


The House of Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) is considered to have been the greatest Spanish writer of all time, and his novel Don Quixote is one of the masterpieces of world literature.  Anyone who is a student of Spanish literature or a fan of the Quixote, will want to make a quick visit to the House of Cervantes Museum in Valladolid.

In 1601 Valladolid briefly became the capital of Spain.  Since Cervantes worked for the government as a tax collector, he and his family moved from Madrid in 1603 and rented this  house.  We know that this is the exact house where he lived because of court records.  When a Knight of the Order of Santiago was murdered on the street outside the house, Cervantes and his neighbors were rounded up and held in the city jail for a few days while the authorities investigated the case.  

The furnishings of the house did not belong to Cervantes, but are all antiques from his era and reflect life in early 17th century Spain.  The inventory of his wife's dowry and his daughter's will were used to approximate the furnishings that might have been in their home.

The Cervantes family lived here until 1606 when the capital was moved back to Madrid.  During his time in Valladolid Cervantes published the first part of his novel Don Quixote.  

An interesting feature of Spanish homes of the era was that women had their own separate room.  Here they would work and talk while seated on cushions placed on a raised dais.  This tradition is the result of the centuries of Muslim occupation in Spain.  

Even though this was not actually the writer's desk, it is nice to imagine that Cervantes sat in this room, working on his literary masterpieces.


Friday, September 11, 2015

Not to be Missed in Valladolid

Valladolid is a large, industrial city that is not usually visited by foreign tourists.  However it is a very historic city... for a few years in the early 1600s it was even the capital of Spain.  There are a still a few places in the city which make it worth a day of sightseeing.

The most important sight to see in Valladolid is the National Museum of Sculpture.  It is housed in the fifteenth century School of San Gregorio... an outstanding work of architecture.

The building was constructed in the ornate Isabelline Gothic style... so named because it was popular in Spain during the reign of Queen Isabella.  (if you don't see much difference between Isabelline Gothic and the "plateresco" style I talked about a few days ago... that's OK.  Neither do I.)

The main courtyard of the building...

One of the stairwells...

The museum contains sculpture dating from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries.  Most of it is religious art, and much of it was rescued from monasteries that were confiscated by the government in the1800s.

Even if you are not religious, you cannot help but be amazed by some of the displays in this museum.

The monastery of San Benito, which was located in Valladolid, had an enormous altarpiece done by one of the leading sixteenth century sculptors.  It takes three rooms to display the pieces that survive from this altarpiece.

 To give you an idea of the scale of these pieces, the image of San Benito, in the center, is much larger than life size.  Being able to see these sculptures close up and at ground level, rather than high up on the church altar, enables you to better appreciate the sculptor's artistry

Also saved from the monastery of San Benito are the choir stalls, a masterpiece of woodcarving.

As you go through the museum, be sure to look up.  In many of the rooms there are beautiful ceilings, which were either the original ceilings of the School of San Gregorio or which were brought to the museum from other buildings.

This museum definitely makes the city of Valladolid worth a visit!

As a side note, I asked one of the guards a question about an altarpiece.  He was very kind and started giving me all sorts of information.  However his Castillian accent was sooo thick that I could hardly understand a word that he was saying.  He went on and on, and I just stood there and nodded.  When it seemed that he was finally finished, I smiled, said "Muchas gracias", and continued to the next room.

I usually don't have that much difficulty with the Castillian accent; in fact I rather like it.  At first I thought he might be speaking with a Galician accent, because I do find that accent very hard to understand.  But as he continued talking, I could tell he wasn't Galician, and I was catching the "th" sound, sort of like lisping, that is characteristic of Castillian. 

Oh well, it's sort of like when we watch BBC dramas, and struggle to understand some of the thick British accents.