Friday, August 12, 2011

A Farewell to Spain

"Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering." - Augustine of Hippo

My time in Spain has come to an end with all the bittersweet feelings that are sure to accompany such a conclusion. A nervous excitement has taken hold of many summer program students in Salamanca. They pack the shops trying to find their last souvenirs and hold study halls in the cafés, attempting to cram in endless conjugations and corresponding verbs before finals.
But the majority of students have adopted the Spanish calm. They sit in the Plaza Mayor enjoying their last ice cream. They stroll through the parks with their hands behind their back and see the summer flowers beginning to fade in anticipation of fall. They sit by the Rio Tormes with a book in their hand and bare feet in the grass. They breathe it all in and know that they have not only discovered another culture, but a new part of themselves in that culture. It seems that we, the consummate tourists, have discovered Fuentes’ Buried Mirror as well.
However, with the end of our travels comes a certain temptation to believe that the Spain we have come to know will be forever frozen in the way we remember it, in the history we relate. Narcissistic in the extreme, this thought is quickly banished as we see the changing leaves and entering novitiates who will no doubt add to the country’s rich history.
Spain and her culture may be rooted in a layered history but she continues to change with her people. The roots of Spain are strong, buried in riots and victories, dictators and kings, expulsions and conquests; but the leaves of Spain, the culture of Spain, continue to evolve and grow.
Spain lives on through its lengthy history, its magnanimous buildings, its inimitable customs, its diverse religions and, most importantly, through its people.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Wedding in the Plaza Mayor

Almost every city in Spain boasts a Plaza Mayor in the center of the city where both the ordinary and extraordinary events of life are celebrated. At night, old couples stroll through the square, while children kick soccer balls over the uneven cobblestone and college kids share wine and tapas with friends. And then there are the weddings.
I am always shocked to witness the abundance of weddings that congregate in these public places. There is no timidity about parading these celebrations around the city and there is no desire for privacy. The joy of a wedding is shared with the entire city or not at all. Así como es España.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Spain and the Church

The towers of Universidad Pontificia
from inside Casa de las Conchas
On the Rua Antigua in Salamanca there are two ancient edifices that face each other at uncomfortably close angles. These buildings are known to all of Salamanca as the Casa de las Conchas and the Universidad Pontificia. The Casa de las Conchas is a solid garrison lavishly decorated with carved sea shells and extravagant flourishes, while the Universidad Pontificia is a towering cathedral and college with illustrious religious images sculpted into the lofty buttresses. Passersby pause in the shadow of the two buildings and tilt their heads in curious gestures, as they ponder why two buildings of such grandeur are built so close as to block the other’s unique architecture.
Legend has it that the Jesuits built the Universidad Pontificia first and the owners of Casa de las Conchas, in an attempt to keep up with the Spanish Joneses, built their seashell house at the doorstep of the magnanimous structure. When the Jesuits saw that the finished Casa de las Conchas blocked their illustrious façade they began to spread a rumor around town that each shell carved into the side of Casa de las Conchas contained a precious jewel. What proceeded were a series of vandalisms against the Casa de las Conchas, resulting in ugly pock marks where certain shells used to be.
Whether this legend proves to be true or false, it serves as a somewhat accurate representation of the relationship between Spain with the Catholic Church.
Since Isabel and Ferdinand reconquered Spain “debajo del cruz” “under the banner of the cross” in 1492, Spain’s history has been forever entwined with that of the Catholic Church. At times, it seems that it is an insurmountable task to dissect a facet that is both a part of the culture and a part of the soul of Spain. At others, it is evident that their relationship is a part of the Spanish culture, but does not encompass the culture.
Depending on the leadership of Spain, there have been times of both war and peace with the Catholic Church. The history between these two factions is too vast to recount; however, fundamentally, a comfortable alliance of give and take had remained the status quo until the 1930’s. Up until the Second Republics radical anticlericalism and Franco’s subsequent despotic adoption of the faith for Spain, the Church had remained an inherent component of the Spanish culture. However, after Franco’s abuse of power, it seems that Spain is wary of religious influence. In fact, the most recent Spanish constitution, written in 1987, emphasizes the separation of church and state in Spain.
Nevertheless, no amount of wishing can take away the traditions and memories of a 500 year relationship. In fact, in less than a week, Madrid will host more than a million Catholic youth and the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, for the 2011 World Youth Day. An infinite number of Spanish cathedrals are papered with banners promoting the event both inside and outside of Madrid. The presence of Spanish citizens protesting the Pope’s arrival only serves to reinforce the polemic relationship between religion and state.
Like the infamous edifices of Casa de las Conchas and Universidad Pontificia, Spain and the Catholic Church share a relationship that is both celebrated and mourned. There is no moving these buildings, there is no changing history, there is only the fact that they must continue to live side by side, sharing each other’s history and tradition.   

Monday, August 8, 2011

Pope to be greeted by protests in Madrid

"Los indignados" or the 15 of May movement in Spain is back in the news today. The group is protesting next week's arrival of Pope Benedict XVI for World Youth Day in Madrid. Protestors say that the government is spending money frivolously in anticipation of the Pope's arrival when they could be putting that money toward education and health costs for the Spanish people. With more than one million youth entering the city of Madrid for WYD next week, one would think that the Pope's visit would serve as a stimulant to Madrid's floundering economy. However, the protests persist and this added to one million foreign visitors could test the vigor of the city of Madrid.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

La Alberca

Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca once said: “In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead in any other country in the world.”

Thus far, this has been the truth. You cannot walk too far in Spain without coming upon a monument to a writer, the old convent of a saint, the house of a famous politician, or the ruins of an ancient culture. There are monuments abounding in Spain, but, perhaps there is not better historical ambience than that which is found in the mountain town of La Alberca.

Located in the northern slopes of the Sierra de Francia, La Alberca is a quiet mountain village with uneven, narrow roads, a small city square and a peaceful quiet that fills her streets. La Alberca is best known as one of the typical small towns that were popular in the Spanish past but are few and far between these days.

Houses are still kept up with great care in the appropriate architecture. Flower boxes grace every balcony and the gong of the church bells still serves as the town’s main time piece. In the shops, open canvas bags of dried peppers, beans and spices create a mixed aroma, inviting shoppers to scoop the appropriate amount into their plastic bags. Life just seems simpler in the mountain town.

By the church in La Alberca there is a statue of a pig that commemorates a tradition that continues to this day. In July, a pig is let loose through the town and it wanders the streets, being fed by different families each night, until in January it is awarded to a lucky family who promptly butchers and eats the pig. This tradition mixed with the current mass production of pork, evident in the crowded Jamonerías, creates a feeling of being in two worlds at once: both the present and the past.

According to Lorca, nowhere is history more alive than in Spain. And according to La Alberca, nowhere is Spanish history more alive than in the streets of their small town.