Friday, July 8, 2016

What a world we live in

Plaza Doña Elvira, where I wrote this blog
Every time I look at the news, it's terrorism, nutty politicians, wacky weather, economic spasms, and 38 flavors of gossip and hoo-ha.  All in all, pretty depressing stuff.  Yet the world around us, for the most part, isn't depressing at all.  From my perspective, it's a grand new adventure every day. 

I'm hardly a champion of technology, or progress, or an uncritical fan of the modern age.  My travels and years have taught me that there's plenty of suffering in the world, and it's not at all evenly shared.  And I'm by no means immune to nostalgia.  But it's important to put things in context, and not miss the small wonders that make this a wonderful time to be alive.

Yesterday I took a day trip to Cordoba.  Thanks to the outstanding Spanish rail system, a 100-mile journey takes a mere 40 minutes on the AVE, a futuristic airplane-on-wheels sort of train.  It's expensive, and somewhat soulless, but it moves like greased glass at up to 250 kph, hydraulic pumps tilting the cars off their wheels on turns, all but silent thanks to being electric.  It features a bar car, or cafetería, with blonde faux-wood kidney-shaped tables, and counters under the windows which are specially modified to be the right height to gaze out of while leaning on the counters or tables.  Recessed lights in the ceiling mimic a starry sky.  By morning it gets busy serving cappuccino, and by late afternoon it gets rowdy serving cocktails, and, sometimes, actual draft beer.  And they take American Express.
Why the long face, Speedy?
Call me a terminal optimist, but I find it hard not to feel pretty good about the state of the world while sipping a gin and tonic on an air-conditioned train speeding past olive groves and stone farmhouses three times as fast (and much smoother and quieter) as I could legally drive.  Globalization has brought plenty of evils, but at moments like this it seems pretty nifty, and those who seek to make violent disruptions, or relentless critiques, completely missing the point.
Happy hour at 250 kph
I love trains so much I'd be happy to ride a route one way, get off and stretch, and get right back on and ride it the opposite way.  But I did have a purpose in going to Cordoba, which was to seek out my favorite pottery, a rustic old Granadan style that seems to be falling out of favor, and perhaps visit a lovely Moroccan tea house I'd found previously.  Having been to Cordoba a few times before, I thought it was time to try taking the bus downtown from the train station instead of a taxi.  I got on the right bus easily enough, happily noting that they take cards or bills or coins, but stop after stop failed to look familiar, until we were clearly past the historic center and I was forced to ask a mother and daughter sitting next to me for help.  They were from out of town too, but the driver chimed in that I'd missed the stop, but no worries, we were almost at the end of the line, and he'd show me just where to get off when we got back to the right stop in about fifteen minutes.
Cordoba's judería (Jewish quarter)

From there an ordinary bus ride turned into an impromptu private tour, as the driver explained to me every neighborhood and monument we were passing, inquiring meanwhile where I was from, and enthusing over the bears and alligators and moose and other amazing elements of the great American landscape he'd seen on TV.  I remembered the time in Chile when I'd missed my stop on the local bus and ridden way out to a dusty sub-suburb of Temuco, where the driver amiably informed me that I should get out and climb aboard the waiting adjacent bus to go back into town and find the stop I'd obviously missed.  I'd seen more of Temuco, and now Cordoba, than I ever would have without making a mistake.  And I'd made a friend--two hours later, as I was circumnavigating the ancient mosque and its throngs of souvenir stores, I heard a persistent honking behind me and finally turned to see bus #3, with the same driver smiling and waving at me.

Gazpacho de naranja
An emblem of religious harmony
I lunched at Casa Nazal, which does for gastronomy what the nearby Sephardic Jewish Museum does for history.  Longtime readers will know that I'm more than a casual foodie, and have eaten my way across five continents.  I do not say lightly, therefore, that the appetizer, orange gazpacho, was one of the most interesting things I've ever eaten: perhaps even more exciting visually than on the palate, despite being served cold it somehow sizzled, apparently from toasted flower petals that garnished the barely sweet, slightly creamy liquid.  The entrée was a bit more "deconstructed" than the high water mark of couscous I enjoyed in Morocco, but the garnish of raisins and pumpkin seeds begged the question why "normal," European food so rarely involves this kind of complexity.  I've only had Sephardic food one other time, at the Johannesburg Jewish Museum, and it too was like something from another planet.  Much more nuanced than many other iterations of "Middle Eastern" food, it bears no resemblance to corned beef, pickles, egg creams, and all the other examples of Jewish food so common in the US, where nearly all Jews are Ashkenazi.  Two different sources contend that there are Jewish families in Turkey, Morocco, and elsewhere who still have the keys to the houses they were evicted from in the 15th century, when Spain expelled all its Jews.  In the 1980s, after Franco, some of them started moving back, and there are now active synagogues in Seville, Granada, and Toledo for the first time in half a millennium.  Why don't jaw-dropping events like this ever make the headlines?

Small wonder in the small streets of Seville
I've long maintained that there's no such thing as a wrong turn.  My experience missing bus stops certainly proves that, and so do the old neighborhoods of Seville, where there are so many abrupt turns, blind alleys, and dead ends that the whole historic center is a play on the old Maine rebuttal, "You can't get there from here"--at least not directly.  Yet it almost never seems apt to say you're "lost" in Seville, because around every other corner blooms a plaza fragrant with jasmine and whispering with a fountain, a plaque in three languages commemorating Muslims, Jews, and Christians sharing this space, an 800-year-old remnant of the original city walls, or a small orgy of azulejos (hand-painted tiles) surrounding a massive carved wooden door.  Even if you ignore the inviting café-bars spreading umbrella-shaded tables in all directions, Seville is a place not to get lost, but found.

I overhear a lot of English-speaking tourists, and they seem to have an unending litany of complaints: it's so hot, the food is too oily, the streets are too narrow, my phone doesn't work here, I'm tired of sangria, all my clothes are dirty, my feet hurt, . . . Who cares?  You're in one of the world's most beautiful cities, the weather is perfect, the food is wonderful, it's safe and clean, everyone is polite and helpful, and you're completely free.  Free to discover, or free to be told--the choice is yours.

Even the bottoms of things are beautiful

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Smaller. Stronger. Better.

A city with a sense of humor
A few years ago New York was peppered with billboards that proclaimed, in bold orange and pink letters superimposed over cups of coffee and arrays of doughnuts, "Faster.  Cheaper.  Better."  The prosecutor, so to speak, was obviously Dunkin Donuts, but the defendant was unnamed.  Everyone was left to assume that the unspecified proprietor of expensive, slow, bad coffee was that great green-aproned monster, Starbucks.  This struck me as a brilliant ad campaign, lampooning not only the usual flaws in Starbucks (complicated menu, burnt taste, high prices) but its more specific problems in the City That Never Sleeps, where even normally cheap things cost an arm and a leg, and there's no tolerance for waste or sluggishness or pretension.  New York is nothing if not no-nonsense, and while DD may not make gourmet coffee, it delivers the basic goods quickly and simply.

Artificially shaded street
On a two week trip to Seville now, I'd like to borrow Dunkin Donuts' slogan to describe most things in Spain.  It's as if everything Americans are used to has been concentrated, boiled down, magnified, and distilled into a smaller, stronger version of itself.  Coffee, which is always espresso-based, comes in tiny white cups, or, if you ask for café con leche, a small glass.  I've tried and failed to replicate this at any number of American cafés: less than a latte and more than a cappuccino, it tastes more deeply coffee-ish than either.  The worst coffee in Spain is equal to some of the best in the US, and the best is otherworldly.  Yet the barmen who make it are so casual, stabbing open great golden bags of beans to run quickly through their sleek, steam-spewing machines as if making great coffee were as simple as pouring a Coke.  (Apologies to my patritotic countrymen, but Coke also tastes better in Spain--and most foreign countries--because it's made with sugar instead of corn syrup and comes in a heavy glass bottle.)

Most drinks other than coffee are served in the same simple 8-ounce glasses known as tubos.  (Coke gets its own curvy green glass.)  This seems a laughably small amount of beer, but there's a hidden advantage in that you can finish it before it gets warm, and it balances the tapa that accompanies it.  Orange juice is almost always fresh-squeezed, an elaborate machine that feeds actual oranges through a mechanical splitter and juicer crowding the corner of most bars.

A hanging forest of hams
American ham is such a caricature of Spanish that it gets its own word: york.  Jamón serrano, blood red and intensely aromatic, is so strong that it is sliced paper-thin and arrayed like jewels on a platter.  It comes in a head-spinning number of grades, including ordinary jamón serrano, from ordinary grain-fed pigs; jamón iberico de pata negra, from black pigs interbred with wild boars; jamón iberico de bellota, from pigs fed on acorns; and jamón iberico enamorado, from pigs that were in love.  (Okay, I made that last one up.)  It's easy to poke fun at the near-religious fervor with which Spaniards approach ham, but even vegetarians have been known to weaken at the taste.
About $10 worth of pork raised to the highest power

The labyrinthine streets of the historic center of Seville are in many cases too narrow for cars, with the happy result that pedestrians rule--though Vespas and other motorbikes do pose an occasional menace, their inadequate mufflers creating a racket that reverberates among the closely spaced buildings.  Even VW Golfs and smaller are diesels.

Despite the prevalence of well-marbled ham, fried squid and eggplant, crusty white bread, potato salad drowning in mayonnaise and grilled vegetables (and everything) swimming in olive oil, to say nothing of ice cream shops and pastry stores on every corner, the people are smaller too.  Spaniards can be dwarfishly short or outlandishly tall, but they're almost uniformly slender--though there does seem to be a sudden tipping point around 45 when huge bellies emerge on men and thick hips and arms on women.  Evidently marriage is bad for the constitution.  The typical strong features--white skin, black hair, heavy eyebrows and chins surrounding fine noses--soften at this point too.

Even the Dumpsters are tiny
The compactness of everything occasionally becomes comical, like the bathroom door of my hotel room that only opens 45 degrees before hitting the toilet, or barstools that can scarcely be moved without banging into the adjacent table, itself too small to comfortably hold enough drinks and tapas for the number of chairs surrounding it.  Where parking is allowed, every car is boxed in so tightly that it seems only a crane could extricate it.

Even the sun is extra-intense; mornings are pleasant, and nights tolerable, but afternoons drive the world under umbrellas and awnings--equipped with cold water misters--for lunch, and then inside for a long nap.  Visitors learn quickly to do almost anything to avoid standing in the sun, or walking on the unshaded side of the street.  Between the long days and overcharged sun, 6 or 7 in the evening feels like early afternoon.

Cocktails on the train
The heat makes drinking and eating a major component of Spanish life.  Though Coke, orange juice, and other cold beverages are widely available, there's no distinction between "hard" and "soft" drinks, and only children and foreigners drink nonalcoholic ones.  This would be a terrible place for recovering alcoholics, when wine and soda merge into that seductive refresher known as tinto de verano, draft beer flows like water, and cocktails from the classic gin and tonic (Spain pioneered gin) to the modern caipiriña are ubiquitous.  Far from a teetotaler, even I am a bit dumbstruck at the clanking, banging volume of kegs and bottles nightly churned through at a typical bar, when every other business is a bar, sometimes half a dozen clustered so closely together you have to squint to see which you're entering.

The night belongs to Spain.  My previous visit to Seville was a day trip, and its charms eluded me: a giant cathedral, orange trees out of bloom, horse-drawn carriages and their attendant shit--what was the big deal?  But the liveliness of a Seville night, when every sidewalk becomes an obstacle course of rowdy tables, and lines of standing drinkers snake half a block away from popular bars, is unrivaled.  The much-ballyhooed Temple Bar area of Dublin matches Seville in noise and volume of alcohol consumption, but lacks both the gastronomic splendor of tapas and the elegance of people drinking for refreshment rather than oblivion.

Typical old-fashioned bar, too early (9 pm) for typical crowds
The USA has its charms, of course, but we really missed something when it comes to café culture.  Even in the punishing afternoon heat, bleary with jet-lag, my first stroll through the old town of Seville made me smile: everyone goes out here, from toddlers to tottering old ladies, and in a city built for strolling, there's nothing more natural than sitting down for a drink and a snack.  Somebody has to work for all this indulgence, no doubt--I pity the poor masons and plumbers I've seen laboring in this merciless sun--but it seems that most are working to live rather than living to work.