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5.31.2013

patrick stewart on the link between combat stress and violence against women

More amazing stuff from Patrick Stewart. Here, he links PTSD among veterans to violence against women and children. To be anti-violence, we must also be anti-war. If you haven't seen it, please watch.


election fraud ruling: demand to know the truth

While everyone's been glued to Rob Ford's crack and Mike Duffy's featherbedding, something even more important happened: the Federal Court confirmed that there was election fraud in the 2011 federal election.

Not just "robocalls" - that diminutive buzzword that the media clings to - but election fraud: a deliberate, targeted attempt at voter suppression. The conservative media has framed the ruling as a victory for the Harper GovernmentTM, because the court stopped short of nullifying the election results. But the ruling was very clear. Judge Richard Mosley wrote:
I find that electoral fraud occurred during the 41st General Election.
Some important and potentially damning details still have not been revealed. Who had access to the Conservative Party's database? Who orchestrated and authorized the election fraud? Let's join the Council of Canadians in demanding the Conservative Party answer those questions. They won't do it, of course. But let's show them we're paying attention.

Go here to send your letter through the Council of Canadians.

* * * *

The ruling itself could not be clearer. Here are some choice excerpts. (A copy is posted here.)

* "Misleading calls about the locations of polling stations were made to electors in ridings across the country" . . . and the calls "appear to have been targeted towards voters who had previously expressed a preference for an opposition party."

* 247 ridings were affected by fraud complaints.

* There was a "deliberate attempt at voter suppression during the 2011 election."

* "Access to a party’s central database is carefully controlled. The calls at issue in these proceedings are most likely to have been organized by a person or persons with: i) access to the central information system of a political party that included contact information about non-supporters; ii) the financial resources to contract voice and automated service providers to make such calls; and iii) the authority to make such decisions."

* "There was an orchestrated effort to suppress votes during the 2011 election campaign by a person or persons with access to the CIMS [Conservative party] database."

* "RMG [marketing company], at the direction of the CPC [Conservative Party of Canada], called hundreds of thousands of electors and read a message stating that: “Elections Canada has changed some voting locations at the last minute”. This included calls to electors in five of the six subject ridings. The information was factually wrong in that there had been only one polling station change in all of the six subject ridings in which RMG made such calls….It was therefore improper for the CPC and RMG to deliver the message they did, and this should not recur."

* "I am satisfied that [it] has been established that misleading calls about the locations of polling stations were made to electors in ridings across the country, including the subject ridings,and that the purpose of those calls was to suppress the votes of electors who had indicated their voting preference in response to earlier voter identification calls."

As Dr Dawg points out, Judge Mosley came down hard on the Conservative Party's use of the legal system to obfuscate, foot-drag, stonewall, and otherwise impede the democratic process. From the decision:

* "In reviewing the procedural history and the evidence and considering the arguments advanced by the parties at the hearing, it has seemed to me that the applicants sought to achieve and hold the high ground of promoting the integrity of the electoral process while the respondent MPs engaged in trench warfare in an effort to prevent this case from coming to a hearing on the merits."

* "Despite the obvious public interest in getting to the bottom of the allegations, the CPC made little effort to assist with the investigation at the outset despite early requests. . . . While it was begrudgingly conceded during oral argument that what occurred was “absolutely outrageous”, the record indicates that the stance taken by the respondent MPs from the outset was to block these proceedings by any means."

Judge Mosley awarded costs to the Council of Canadians, meaning the Conservative Party has been ordered to reimburse the expenses associated with all that foot-dragging and stonewalling. The Party of Transparency and Accountability strikes again.

* * * *

The Council of Canadians is calling on the Conservative Party to come clean: give us a list of everyone who had access to the national CIMS database and the authority to initiate those calls, and turn over the information to the Commissioner of Elections.

Let's all get on board with that. Take five minutes from your day, and write a letter. Show Stephen Harper that some Canadians are paying attention. Go here to send your letter through the Council of Canadians.

5.30.2013

special update for long-time wmtc readers

In 2009, I wrote this brief history of trolls at wmtc. At that time, the sad man who calls himself magnolia_2000 had been reading and leaving comments on wmtc for about three years.

Now it's mid-2013, and Mags is still reading. It's been six years. Six years!! None of his comments is ever put through moderation. Ninety-five percent of his comments are deleted unread. But still, he continues to post.




GaryStJ went away. The guy from the Naruto fan forums went away. But not Mags. Allan says Mags is my most loyal reader, and at this point, I can't disagree.

5.29.2013

thank you, dr. henry morgentaler

Canada lost a true hero today, someone who spent the better part of his life defending the rights and freedoms of others.

From the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Morgentaler decision:


Jillian Bardsley, Medical Students for Choice, Toronto Chapter, on Canada's lack of abortion providers, and what students are doing about it

Michele Landsberg, author, former columnist for Toronto Star, instrumental in writing about abortion and other feminist issues

Angela Robinson, Women's College Hospital, on anti-abortion by stealth, and how she found the movement

Author and activist Judy Rebick, with memories of working alongside Dr. Morgentaler, as "the girl from the clinic," and the widespread public support for their work.

* * * *

Dr. Morgentaler's obituary in the New York Times.

Rabble has collected some nice tributes from Canadians.

5.28.2013

walmart workers are on strike! sign their petition to show your support.

I'm back! And Walmart workers are on strike! Workers in Miami, Massachusetts and the Bay Area in California are on strike. Please sign their petition supporting their right to speak out for better conditions in the workplace.

Workers who have spoken out have seen their hours reduced, their shifts changed for maximum inconvenience, their meagre pay raises disappear... and they've been flat-out fired. But these courageous workers are refusing to be cowed. Let's stand by them in every way we can.

Click here to sign the Walmart workers petition. It will be delivered at the next Walmart shareholders' meeting.

in which i try to mail postcards from spain

We used to send a lot of postcards from our travels, but that is a ritual lost to time and email. A few people do still get postcards, though: my mother, Allan's great aunt in Vermont, and in this case two friends, for specific reasons. I bought the postcards, tucked them away, and kind of half forgot about them and half kept on the lookout for a post office from which to buy stamps.

Every time we saw a mailbox - yellow in Spain, marked correo - I remembered that I didn't have stamps, but I never saw a post office. We asked about stamps at a souvenir store, and they told us to go to a tobacco shop. Anytime we saw a tobacco shop, I would remember the stamps, but we would be busy, or looking for something else, or they were closed for Sunday, or for the long midday break, or for whatever reason, I didn't go in. In a few different cities, we asked again, and would be directed either to a tobacco shop or a post office. Then I would forget about the postcards until we either saw postcards for sale or a mailbox. Repeat as necessary

So now it's the end of the trip, and I have one postcard from London, two from Barcelona, and one from Ronda. And no stamps. I'm envisioning putting the postcards in envelopes and mailing them from Canada. In Bilbao, a woman in a souvenir store said I can buy stamps in a tobacco shop, but it was Sunday. On Monday morning, after breakfast, I remembered the postcards and, amazingly, Allan saw a tobacco shop up the street. Sure enough, I can buy stamps there.

(I'm not sure what the deal is with tobacco shops. In Spain you can buy cigarettes from machines at many bars and cafes. The tobacco shops sell loose tobacco, pipes, cigars, and bongs, but also stationery items... and stamps.)

So now it's the final day of the trip. I have stamped postcards and one day, plus the airport, to try to mail them from Spain.

In Barajas, after our meal at the bar, I ask the host if she knows where there is a correo in town. She does not, but she asks someone else, who quickly directs us four blocks away. Four blocks later, we come to a green postbox for postal service use only, the kind that are gray in Ontario and I can't remember what colour in the US. We walk around more, trying t spot a yellow correo. All over Spain, giant recycling and trash receptacles are found curbside, and neighbourhood residents carry their household trash and recyclables to them, because big trash trucks could never negotiate the tiny winding streets. In Barajas, the glass recycling bins happened to be yellow. So everywhere we walked, we saw flashes of yellow, thought we saw un correo... only to realize it was a recycling bin.

After many blocks of walking around, we asked again at a newsstand. A very friendly and helpful news agent directed us to the exact spot we would find un correo. We went there... and it was green, for postal service use only. WTH?? Doesn't anyone ever have to pay a bill through the mail anymore? Or perhaps the letter carriers pickup mail as well as deliver? We walked all around - suddenly the world was full of yellow - but never found a mailbox.

I figured there would be a mailbox in the airport somewhere. And we went back to the room.

Tuesday morning, we woke up early, took the shuttle to the airport, checked in, had breakfast, and went to our gate. There was a second screening before a series of boarding gates. I overheard someone say that once we went through that screening, we could not return, and I needed water. We stepped out of line.. .and I suddenly remembered the postcards! There was still time before boarding, and I ducked into a newsstand.

"Hay un correo en el areopuerto?"

The friendly news agent told me that I could not buy stamps in the airport, but there was a little box where I could mail things. I told her I had stamps, and asked where I could find the little box. This was all in Spanish, but by now I was well versed in my mailbox vocabulary. She gave me exact directions to the little box.

I told Allan I was going off to find the box. It took a few moments for me to get the postcards and figure out where Allan and I would meet up... and we heard someone calling to us.

It was the newsstand woman, telling me she would mail the postcards for me on her way out of the airport, after work. I protested, No, no, puedo, puedo, I can do it. She insisted, saying (in Spanish) that I had a flight to make, and I would have to walk all the way around the airport, and she would pass the box on her way home. She said the mail wouldn't go out til the next day, and I assured her, that was fine, that was perfect. After a few rounds of "are you sure" and "no, really", I handed her the postcards. I said, "Mi madre dice 'gracias' a ti," which made her laugh.

And that is the story of how I mailed postcards in Spain.

5.27.2013

bilbao to madrid, but not toledo

For most of the trip, I was hoping to spend a few hours in Toledo on our last day in Spain. Allan was skeptical at best, feeling it would make the day too rushed and pressured. I was holding out hope until the last moment, but once we found the highway out of Bilbao and saw the time, I realized he was right. What's more, the medieval synagogue in Toledo, the main site I wanted to see there, is closed on Mondays. The interior is supposed to be beautifully preserved, but we wouldn't get to see it anyway. Ah well. I reluctantly gave up on the idea.

We had breakfast in Bilbao across the street from our hostal, in a lovely little cafe/bar, the kind that will make me miss Spain. I must note that I asked for a slice of something at the bar, thinking it was an egg tortilla... and it was cheesecake. Yummy cheesecake, but nevertheless, I had cheesecake for breakfast, a first for me. Naturally when I finished the cake, the host came out of the kitchen with a big egg tortilla. We had a good laugh over that.

We had an easy highway drive down to Madrid. Soon after leaving Euskadi/Basque Country, the dark green forest faded to dusty orchards. Once when we pulled off the highway for a driving break, to stretch our legs, we saw two lovely dogs, then a man who they appeared to be with. It seemed very strange to see dogs - loose, not on leashes - and a pedestrian on a service road near the highway, until we saw their flock of sheep! The man was a shepherd, and there was a third dog among the sheep. The pasture ran all the way to the service road.

We drove to the town of Barajas, right near the Madrid airport, where we had a room booked at a Best Western airport hotel. After checking in and leaving our bags in the room, we drove to the airport, returned the rental car, then took the Best Western shuttle back to the hotel. A few doors down, we had wine and pintxos, and to my surprise, the food was really good. I order huevos rotos, the fried eggs over whatever you want, in this case garlic shrimp and patatas frias.

We wandered around the main drag trying to find a mailbox (see next post), to no avail. Then we bought our final bottle of vino tinto for 2.50 - and that is marked up at the corner store!

We had a terrific trip, and are also happy to be going home. We miss the dogs a lot, I'm excited about my new job, and Allan is anxious about his looming book deadline. What a difference for me, returning to a job I enjoy!

Now we return to the crack-smoking mayor, the voter-suppressed federal government, the badly-behaved Canadian third baseman, and the first place Boston Red Sox. And most importantly, Tala and Diego!

cantabria to gernika and bilbao, part 2

In the Guggenheim, we took audioguides as a substitute for a tour of the building, which in this season are only in Spanish. The audioguide is included with admission, and available in a huge range of languages, including Catalan - clearly a political statement from Basque Bilbao.

We joined many other people standing in the atrium, the focal point of the interior, listening to the audioguide and looking around at the dizzying curves and cubes and ramps. The atrium is strange and wonderful. Outside on the patio, you are suddenly on the prow of a ship, a theme that is echoed many times in the building.

The narration describes Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim as a sculpture, and it does look and feel more important (and, in my opinion, better) than any of the art it houses. I know this bothers some people, who believe that a museum should be neutral and disappear behind the art it contains. I don't see why that should be. Surely Frank Lloyd Wright's original Guggenheim Museum upstages almost any art that is displayed there, and is the more important and durable art itself. But obviously I care more about architecture than I do about postmodern art.

For our part, we weren't particularly excited to see any of the art in the Bilbao Guggenheim. Perhaps if we had started in the morning, we might have spent more time with the exhibits, but I'm glad we chose Gernika. We looked briefly at interesting permanent works by Jenny Holzer and Frank Serra, and very briefly at a temporary exhibit about art and resistance in Nazi-occupied France. And very very briefly at work by Alex Katz, Basquiat, Warhol, and others along those lines.

Mostly we explored the building itself, which is what we came to see. It did not disappoint. It is really a knock-out.

When we were museumed out, we walked back to where the car was parked and easily found the hotel on a small, pedestrian-only street. I cannot imagine how we would have found it while driving.

The Hostal Begonia, like our hostal in Barcelona, is on the second floor of an old apartment building. There are funky paintings and tile everywhere, and an enormous library, hundreds and hundreds of books spanning a wide range of classics, politics, lit crit, biography, and history.

Our room was a "mini suite," all they had available that night, and it was enormous, four times the size of any other room on this trip (66 euros, our most expensive room since leaving Barcelona). We collapsed for a while, then set out in search of pintxos. We walked over to the oldest part of the city (dating back to the 1400s), a short walk over a bridge. We stopped at an outdoor market and bought some cheap jewelry and some sweets. Many stalls were selling local cheese that you could smell when the wind blew.

We spent the evening going to several different pintxos places. It's a fun routine. You ask what things are (you usually can't tell), and the bar person points to different things reciting in either English or Spanish, "Pulpo, Calamari, Chicken, Meat...". We saw a lot of people drinking white wine, the first we've seen on this trip, so we ordered it too, having a couple of glasses of wine and three or four pintxos at each stop. The food was amazing, and it's so much fun to have these wonderful little bites. Anything you like, you can order another. Anything you're not crazy about, it's a low commitment.

Many places were closed, Sunday night probably not being prime time, but enough places were open on the Plaza and another street Allan wanted to try (from the guidebook) that we had a good sampling.

For our last stop, we returned to where we started. Good timing. A group of Dutch people who (I overheard) had been there four nights in a row were shaking hands and saying goodbye to their host. He scooted off and returned with an unusual pitcher, shaped something like an old oil can, or an odd salad-dressing cruet. He said, "Here is special Basque thing!" and demonstrated: holding one side and streaming the liquid into his mouth from a distance. He offered it to one of the Dutch guests, holding it aloft so the Dutch guy had to either drink or be doused in purple liquid. Dutch guy was able to drink an amazing amount in one go. Everyone else was too scared. I would have done it, but I'm too uncoordinated and surely would have been wearing it or choking. I did try some in my glass: it tasted something like cough medicine. I later learned it's made from blueberries. The whole thing was a riot. As we were leaving, more people were streaming in and the place was picking up steam all over again.

We had a lovely day in Euskadi/Basque Country. I'd love to explore further, although I highly doubt we will return. If you go, you might also want to check out this transporter bridge, the oldest one in existence, and the first industrial object to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The other hugely popular thing to do along with visiting the Bilbao Guggenheim is to drive the San Sebastian coast and eat San Sebastian cuisine, both said to be unparalleled. We opted out of both of those in favour of paleolithic cave paintings, and were very happy with our choice.

As we went to bed that night, the big question was, will we visit Toledo on our last day, or just go to the hotel airport?

Photos of the Bilbao Guggenheim are here.

cantabria to gernika and bilbao, part 1

I almost forgot to mention, we had some interesting news from home. Everything is fine now, but Essie had her hands full for a while!

I warned Essie about the danger of skunks in our backyard after dark: absolutely never, ever let the dogs run out into the backyard after dark!! I've lost track of how many times our dogs have been skunked, and I'm determined to make sure it never happens again.

But there's no accounting for early-morning skunks!

Maybe this skunk was an early riser or maybe he was staggering home from an all-nighter, but either way, a skunk and our dogs greeted each other at around 7:00 in the morning. I won't go into details, but Essie handled it heroically. Luckily I caught up with her by text and phone before she went to too much unnecessary effort.

Then Essie took the dogs to the dogpark. When she went to leave, our car wouldn't start! Some nice people at the park had booster cables and helped her out. That has never happened to us, ever.

Apparently canines and cars have been normal since then. But wow!

* * * *

We left Santillana del Mar early in the morning and headed west, towards the region of Basque Country, Euskadi in Basque, Pais Vasco in Spanish. It was a pretty drive through the country, and when we got towards the Basque region, the road was more mountainous and close to the sea.

I had a bit of concern going there without being able to speak a word of Euskara. Many Basques do not like to speak Spanish, as they seek to be independent of Spain. But their own language is barely spoken outside of their province: it is a language with no known family. So Spanish would be the language of tourism and general currency. But still, I don't want to be rude or offensive.

We drove first to Gernika, to see the Gernika Peace Museum. Gernika is the Basque name for Guernica, the town that on April 26, 1937, Hitler and Franco tried to bomb into submission, the atrocity commemorated in Picasso's famous painting. The bombing of Gernika marked the first time a civilian population was intentionally targetted by aerial weaponry as a method of breaking the people and their movement. Gernika was specifically chosen because the Basque people were strongly represented in the Spanish Republican (anti-fascist) movement.

We drove into the town and parked, then asked a passerby for direction, then later on another, naturally speaking Spanish. They were both so friendly and helpful that I immediately had a good feeling about being there.

The museum is divided into three main parts: reflections on the meaning of peace, what happened to Gernika in the absence of peace, and what about peace in the world today? (If you are interested, this link has some of the many subcategories of each part.)

I found the reflections on the meaning of peace very significant. Peace is more than the absence of war. An oppressive government can enforce an absence of armed conflict. A grossly unequal society may appear to be at peace. But if people are forced into submission, can peace be said to exist? There is also personal peace, peace of mind and of heart. But even that can be the illusion of peace, of living in a personal bubble of denial. By inviting you to contemplate these ideas, the museum prepares you for what happens in the absence of peace. You move from the general (peace) to the specific (Gernika) and back to the general (truth and reconciliation, human rights).

One multimedia section puts you in a typical Gernika home, listening to a survivor speak (translated), then you hear the bombing, and the scene changes; you see destruction all around you. Another video looks at reconciliation efforts: Ireland, Guatemala, South Africa, Australia.
On May 12, 1999, the New York Times reported that, after sixty-one years, in a declaration adopted on April 24, 1999, the German Parliament formally apologized to the citizens of Guernica for the role the Condor Legion played in bombing the town. The German government also agreed to change the names of some German military barracks named after members of the Condor Legion. By contrast, no formal apology to the city has ever been offered by the Spanish government for whatever role it may have played in the bombing.
The final section of the museum reflects on universal human rights. Without them, there can be no real peace.

In all, the Gernika Peace Museum is a very special place. If you ever go to this part of Spain, perhaps to visit the Bilbao Guggenheim, I highly recommend spending a few hours in this wonderful museum. The signage is in Euskara and Spanish, but on admission, you receive printed information - an entire book that walks you through every exhibit - in the language of your choice.

There is a copy of Picasso's painting in the museum, and a ceramic tile version on a wall in town. The museum itself occupies pride of place in the centre of town. I would be so proud to live in a town that, despite its suffering, places a peace museum in the heart of its community.

* * * *

We drove from Gernika to Bilbao with no problem, but the moment we left the highway, we were lost. What else is new. Once in town, off the highway, our directions from Google Maps rarely correspond to reality on the ground.

Rather than waste any time driving around blindly, I asked Allan to park, then we asked for directions at a newsstand. The newsstand person put on her glasses, took out a map, looked in the index for the street name, and gave us general directions in slow, clear Spanish, even telling me a couple of key words in Euskara to help me navigate.

Because of one-way streets and general confusion, we had to stop again, this time near a lively pedestrian area where people were eating and drinking with their families. (It was Sunday.) A bunch of people were looking at a map of the city, and I kind of crept up until they noticed me. I said in Spanish, "We are lost..." and they all gave us the map and discussed our directions. And this is the biggest city in the Basque Country province. So by now my fears about language were put to rest.

From there, we had a general idea where to go, but nothing too specific. We drove over a bridge with the Guggenheim right next to us! Then around to another bridge going in the opposite direction. I saw a parking lot and implored Allan to go right in.

I thought we were in walking distance from the museum, so I thought, rather than drive around looking for the hotel, let's park, see the museum, and we'll deal with the rest later. We have a reservation and I've asked the hotel to hold it til late. I can write down the name of the street where we're parked, call the hotel, and get directions from there. (If this seems too detailed, I'm recording this for a reason.)

With the car safely tucked away, we walked down a lovely pedestrian esplanade, with the river on one side and tram tracks on the other. People were out walking, many with dogs, children were playing, the sun was shining. It was lovely.

A large group of people walking Greyhound dogs appeared. It was a Greyhound parade! Many of the dogs wore sweaters saying "Adopta Un Galgo," sweaters perfectly tailored to the Greyhounds' svelte physique. The dogs were lovely. Seeing the dog rescue group, I remembered that earlier in the day, we had heard frantic barking but saw no dog. We saw a car pulling a trailer, a small, low trailer like you'd use to transport tools, and realized in horror that a dog must be inside. Believe me, this did not look like a humane way to transport a living creature. Now I realized that must have been a racing dog inside.

We took a flyer, and I've since learned that Spain has a huge dog-racing business. Galgo is the Spanish word for racing dogs. The Galgo rescue group meets on the last Sunday of every month at Puppy, better known as El Poop, the giant begonia-covered sculpture of a dog by Jeff Koons that stands in front of the Bilbao Guggenheim. (Begonias are a Basque symbol.) Check out the Galgo rescue group's lovely logo.

We walked a short while, and soon the Bilbao Guggenheim appeared. Like most art, it's even more impressive in person than in photos. We walked all around it taking pictures, crossing the pedestrian bridge to get the famous view you always see.

After this, we walked around to the front of the museum. (What you usually see is the back. The Puppy sculpture is the other side.) As we were coming around, I saw the giant "i" symbol for tourist information. I said to Allan, it's Sunday afternoon, what are the odds that it's open. But we saw someone inside, and went in.

I said, "We have a hotel reservation, but we cannot find the hotel." The info desk person asked for the name of the hotel. I said, "Hostal Begoña. We are parked at Pio Baroja." She took out a map and showed me Hostal Begoña... around the corner from Pio Baroja. We had parked around the corner from the hotel!

She gave us the map... and then locked the door behind us! We found them a few moments before they closed!

Photos of the Gernika Peace Museum and the Guernica reproduction are here.

5.25.2013

cantabria, day two

We've had another outstanding day of seeing cave paintings, an entirely different experience that complemented the other two cave tours.

We left Santillana del Mar early and drove on back-country roads to the town of Puente Viesgo, to see the caves known as El Castillo and Las Monedas. The countryside here is beautiful - lush green hills dotted with red-roofed stone houses, groups of cows and sheep and horses grazing here and there. The rural routes wind through little town centres with the usual shops. I know Spain is suffering under severe unemployment, but we see no evidence of it. (I'm not suggesting the reports are over-rated, only that the misery doesn't show.)

In Puente Visiego, there was a car park and an interpretation centre, so right away this was more developed that the cave at Covalanas. There was a bit of confusion about our reservation - they had two spots reserved under my name, but no time listed - but the friendly park staff assured us that we would definitely have a tour, and it would be at the time we expected (10:00 a.m.). This was a terrific stroke of luck, as, once again, we were the only people on our tour!

The guide introduced herself as Susanna, and asked if I understood any Spanish. Before I could answer, she said she would speak very slowly and if I needed more explanation, I was to tell her, and we would work it out between us. She also asked if Allan would understand, and I indicated I would tell him, and she said, Va a traducir para él, muy bueno, You will translate for him, very good.

Susanna was true to her word, and she was a gem. She spoke slowly and clearly, in simple sentences, and - most importantly - paused after each sentence so I could process the meaning and convey it to Allan. (This is the key, I find. In the Tito Bustillo cave, I would be trying to hold information in my head to tell Allan, but the guide would speed onward, and I'd get lost, and then it was hopeless.) If I had questions or was not sure of the meaning, Susanna encouraged me to find a way to express it, and all three of us would figure it out. She reminded me of a librarian or a school teacher. In fact, at one point I asked her if she gives tours to children, because she is so easy to understand. (She does, and it's her favourite part of her job.)

Cueva de El Castillo is part of a group of four connected caves, and only partially open to the public. The entrance to the cave is where the paleolithic people lived - many different peoples over thousands of years - and is still being excavated. Where the people lived, there are no drawings, and where there are drawings, no one lived. Much of the cave system is very wet, with rushing waterfalls in the winter and tremendous stalactite and stalagmite activity, and of course no paintings are found there. Other cave "rooms" are dry, and all the dry rooms contain cave art.

In this cave, we saw the figures of deer, bison, and bulls - not modern-day bulls, but a paleolithic bull called a uro. There are also a wealth of symbols, the meanings of which can never be known, but which attest to the paleolithic people's capacity for abstract thought. There was also another feature, something very, very special: hand prints. These handprints were formed by a person holding one hand against the cave wall, and in the other, a hollow reed, and blowing pigment onto and around the hand. We saw about 10 of these handprints. The cave contains a room with 66 handprints, but it is in a narrow passageway closed to the public.

Seeing these handprints was absolutely amazing. Here was a person, like us; here they stood; here was her or his hand. It gave us chills. Even Susanna, who has seen these so many many times, said that for her, these hand prints are the most meaningful piece.

We also saw a long series of red dots or daubs that line the caves. One theory holds that these dots were used for counting; another theory is that they were navigational. Or they well could mean anything else, there is no way to know.

Susanna also put the El Castillo cave in context with other caves in Spain, France, and elsewhere. For example, when we saw the uro, she told us which caves are known for the depictions of uros, or which caves have large numbers of hand prints, or where there are figures on cave ceilings.

In one room where there are no paintings, but where in the winter there is a rushing waterfall, Allan noted that the rock formations resembled the "melting" effect on the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Susanna said that many people note that, but that Gaudi never saw this cave. I noted, though, that Gaudi used formations found in nature, and he may have seen rock formations like this at some point.

On this tour, I was able to fill in the blanks of various bits of information I half-gleaned but didn't fully understand on the first two tours - how the pigments were made, how long ago the pictures were painted, how many different groups of people used the same caves over time, how old the caves are, and so on. There weren't a huge number of paintings in El Castillo, but the intimate experience and the ease of comprehension made it a wonderful experience.

I remarked that we were very lucky to have a private tour. Susanna said that on weekends, Spanish people are highly unlikely to go on a 10:00 tour! She said noon, at the earliest, but stressed this was only on Saturday and Sunday. She said, but when you travel, you must be up and about: "Yo no iría a Canadá a dormir!" (I wouldn't go to Canada to sleep!)

We shook hands and thanked Susanna warmly. When she said it was a great pleasure, I believed her. There is nothing as satisfying as teaching people who love to learn, whose faces are lit up with delight. We were star pupils!

* * * *

After the cave visit, we stopped at a supermarket. We had no desire to have another dinner in Santillana del Mar, and we wanted to try some of the local specialities. We got a local chorizo and two local cheeses - queso de tres osos (made from cow's, sheep's, and goat's milks combined) and cabrales, a smelly blue-green cheese that tastes like very strong bleu. Here and in Asturias, cheese is aged in caves! And of course we got the ubiquitous red wine, jamon, bread, and some sobaos, which we are now addicted to - a short-lived condition.

We went back to the hotel and ate on the patio, and suddenly I had no desire to see the museum at Altamira. But we rallied.

* * * *

Right around the corner from our hotel, two kilometres down the road, is the Museo de Altamira.

With the Lescaux caves in France, the caves at Altamira were the best known and the most heavily touristed for cave art. They've had a great impact on our understanding of our prehistoric ancestors. When the caves were first discovered in the 1880s, there was a huge public controversy, because people doubted that prehistoric people had the intellectual ability to have created the paintings. When the authenticity of the paintings were finally established in 1902, our understanding of prehistoric peoples were forever changed.

In the 1970s, it was found that human breath, from so many visitors, had altered the humidity in the caves, leading to the growth of algae, harming the paintings. (Kind of amazing in itself!) In 1977, the caves were closed to the public, and in 2001, the museum, which includes a replica of the Altamira's most famous paintings, opened.

The museum is a truly excellent anthropology museum, treating paleolithic humans with respect and admiration. After all, these people learned how to survive in incredibly harsh conditions, inventing their own technology without the benefit of trade, and sometimes without the benefit of received wisdom, as life expectancy was extremely short. These were people who made tools, buried their dead with rituals, cared for their children, wore jewelry, engaged in abstract thought (possibly spiritual in nature)... and who made art.

Two excellent features of the Altamira museum were a digital slideshow of paleolithic art all over the world and a silent tryptich film depicting the birth of cave art and connecting it with art today. The film included a glimpse of Picasso's "Guernica," which reminds us of what Picasso said after seeing the cave paintings:“Después de Altamira, todo es decadencia”. "After Altamira, everything else is decadence."

The slideshow was amazing. There is paleolithic art on every continent. The work in some African countries, where giraffes are depicted, and in central Asia, is particularly stunning. In the Americas, paleolithic art includes two places Allan and I have visited: the Nazca Lines in Peru and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. The US state of Colorado is as far north and east as paleolithic art is found in North America, as most of the continent wasn't populated until the neolithic era. The photography in the exhibit was tremendous, and the art is simply eye-popping.

The Altamira museum also contains a reproduction of the famous cave ceiling covered in red and black bisons, each bison painted into a natural depression of the cave. I sat this one out, but Allan said it was well done, although of course not very exciting, since you know it's a reproduction, and you're standing in a museum, not a cave.

If you ever go to northern Spain, I highly recommend visiting this museum in conjunction with seeing real cave paintings in real caves. It's not a substitute, but it does enhance the experience.

* * * *

In the late afternoon, we wandered a bit in the little village of Santillana del Mar to take some photos. It seems to be a popular weekend destination for locals to hang out. It's a nice town, with two weird features. There's a zoo, which makes us sad every time we pass (who is locked up in there?), and there's an inquisition museum, featuring more than 70 different instruments of torture. Uh, ok.

On our drive to the Tito Bustillo cave yesterday, I thought that the Asturias region looks like lovely place for a cottage holiday. It's right on the Cantabrian sea, there are nice little things to do like visiting caves, and Gothic and Romanesque architecture, and it's incredibly picturesque. The cave is on a little inlet where people were renting kayaks. Asturias is framed by the Pico de Europa mountain range, a popular climbing destination for people who do such things.

Our trip is almost over! Tomorrow we drive to Bilbao.

Photos from Cantabria and Asturias are here. The most wonderful part of our stay in this region cannot be photographed!

5.24.2013

cantabria and asturias, day one

Today we fulfilled a travel wish we've harboured for many, many years. We saw two sets of paleolithic cave paintings.

* * * *

The day started out a bit interesting, with an early-morning phone call that appeared to be from our dogsitter, scaring me (although it turned out to be a mistake), and a non-working shower. While we ate breakfast, the desk clerk wanted to tell us the shower was fixed, so she wrote this on a scrap of paper: "The bath this one are repaired. Forgives the inconvenience." I have no doubt my Spanish sounds equally amusing.

We had to wait for the tourist information office to open in order to get a regional map; our large road map of Spain is useless for local driving. This meant getting a later start than we wanted, so we were unsure if we'd get to the first cave in time for our 10:40 reservation. As it turned out, the cave was much further away than we thought, and after we found the town, we then had to drive past the town, leave the car on a trail, and walk up steep switchbacks - a good 20 minute walk uphill - to the cave entrance. At the top of the trail, there was a little cabin, locked up, and we assumed the tour had left without us.

As it turned out, this was great. When the "tour" came back, it consisted of one park ranger tour guide, and only one tourist. For this tiny cave, only six people can go in at a time. Because we missed our appointment, we had the next scheduled tour to ourselves.

This was Cueva de Covalanas, the Covalanas Cave. It's one of the least developed in the region in terms of tourism. The guide spoke only Spanish, but I told her if she spoke slowly, I could understand. And when she remembered to speak slowly, I did! I translated for Allan as best as I could.

The guide unlocked the entrance with a key, and we all walked in. The only light was her little pen flashlight. We walked for a few minutes, then she turned off her light so we could see how dark the cave really was. It is the darkest dark you can experience. Total blackness. Even after a few minutes, your eyes don't adjust, because there is nothing to adjust to. You literally cannot see your hand in front of your face.

Then she clicked on her light and there on the wall: a deer. It's drawn in vivid red. It was drawn 16,000 to 20,000 years ago, and it looks like it could have been put there yesterday.

The guide traced the form of the deer, using the shadow of her finger as a pointer, showing us how the artist used the natural contours of the cave as part of the animal's form. By moving her flashlight, she showed us how the animal form is better seen with indirect light. With her flashlight above the figure, rather than directly in front of it, the shape really came alive.

The guide explained how people didn't live in these caves, they lived in caves below, closer to where we parked our car, and only used these caves above for some special significance. She told us how they would make light with fire (burning animal fat) and how they made the paint out of minerals. The paint isn't found naturally, it was a painstaking process, very deliberate. And of course the painter was drawing from memory, without a model or a photo in front of him.

Using her light and the shadow of her finger, the guide showed us several more animal forms. The animal's name translates as deer in English, but it looks more like what we would call an antelope. There was also a horse that the artist portrayed with its mane flowing and legs running, the front legs not drawn but formed by the rock.

There are 18 paintings in all. They are all red, and made with a distinctive style: the painter used his or her thumb to make dots or daubs. You can get very close to the paintings, and they are incredibly well preserved.

Our guide told us about how the great cave paintings at Altamira are now locked up - the irony of permanent preservation, but their gifts no longer reaching the public. She said, there are the reproductions, but it's not the same. To her, the best cave is Covalanas, because it's dark, and not developed, and you can be so close, and the red is so vivid. She was clearly passionate about her work, and often she would forget to speak slowly, and I would get only the barest gist, but it didn't matter. It was just a privilege to be there. Allan and I were both very moved.

Since you can't take photos in the cave, we bought a book. The text is only in Spanish, but the photos are wonderful. We took a few photos of the surrounding mountains, with sheep grazing in mountain pastures. As we left, two people had arrived for the next tour.

* * * *

We weren't sure if we could make our next appointment, which was in the complete opposite direction, and over the provincial border in Asturias, plus there was some road construction along the way. But we did make it, just in time, to the little town of Ribadesella, to see the Cuevas de Tito Bustello, named for one of the cavers who stumbled on them in 1968.

This was an entirely different experience, and an excellent counterpart to our first tour. At Tito Bustello, as many as 20 people can go in the cave at a time. There is a specially constructed tourist entrance, with a cement floor and artificial lighting on the floor. It is still dark, and wet, and slippery, but the cave has been transformed for tourists. There's a large interpretative centre that (supposedly) will one day replace the caves when they are closed to tourism.

At this cave, the group walked a long way in, through large open rooms full of stalactites and stalagmites, and strange, beautiful rock formations. The guide talked quickly and incessantly. We were the only non-Spanish-speakers in the group, and mostly we just didn't understand anything. I could generally understand the subject of the talk - now he's describing how the cave was formed by the river, now he's describing what paleolithic people ate - but that was about it.

We walked a long ways in, towards the originally entrance to the cave, which has since been closed by a landslide. The guide turned off his light so we could experience the darkness, and also asked for silence, so we could hear the rushing water of the river (which you can't see). Then the guide used the same techniques - the flashlight and finger shadows - to show us a large area painted with red and black deer, antelope, bison, and geometric shapes. Above them all, too high for a person to paint without some type of ladder or scaffolding, is the beautiful image of a horse's head: the image that has come to symbolize cave paintings in the north of Spain.

There are many more paintings in Tito Bustillo, but they are in small spaces that are now closed to the public.

After the tour, we spent time in the interpretive centre, which was truly excellent, signed in both Spanish and English. There was an exhibit on how the paintings were discovered by a group of cavers purely by chance, and a lot about the painting techniques, and the lives of the people who created them.

* * * *

I love to think about these people, fully human, just like us. People who are the ancestors of all of us, people who made tools, who learned how to survive - but who also made and wore jewelry, and made art, and fashioned tools that were not only useful but beautiful. This means we share something with these long-ago humans, we have a commonality with them. They are part of our shared heritage, the heritage that links all humans as one. And, as far as we know, they were the world's first artists.

I can go on and on about this stuff. If you haven't yet seen the Werner Herzog movie "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," I hope you will. He captured and expressed the wonder I feel about this work.

* * * *

After we drove back, we walked into the little town centre for dinner. Dinner was better tonight - cocido montenes, a local stew with white beans, greens, and sausage, and some pork medallions, and more flan, and dinner always includes water, wine, and bread.

We end the day the way it began, with a mistranslation. On the menu, a dish is described as "loin of pork, including its landfill".

5.23.2013

madrid to segovia to cantabria

Getting out of Madrid was a whole lot easier than getting in. We found our way to the highway easily, and had a short drive to the town of Segovia, to see its famous Roman aqueduct. It's pretty amazing to see a gigantic, completely intact stone aqueduct right in the middle of a town: see here. It's about 32 kilometres (20 miles) long, 28.5 metres (93.5 feet) tall at its highest point, and made of more than 20,000 stones, and not a drop of mortar.

Years ago, we saw the Pont du Gard, a famous three-tiered Roman aqueduct in France. We went way out of our way to see it, and were well rewarded for our trouble. This one in Segovia was equally impressive. It was a beautiful, sunny morning and we took a lot of pictures.

Segovia has a "centro historico" dating back to the middle ages, with a Jewish quarter, old churches, and an alcazar (castle) with, I hear, an impressive view of the valley below. There are dozens of similar towns, and we wanted to make sure we have time for the final and important piece of this trip, so we just visited the aqueduct and hit the road.

Then we set off for Cantabria and Asturias, two regions in the north of Spain that are dotted with caves, many of which contain paleolithic paintings. We had reserved a room in the town of Santillana del Mar, outside of Torrelavega, near the larger city of Santander.

We took a very scenic route that wound through country completely different than what we saw in the south. Where in the south the land looked arid and dry, here everything was lush and verdant, with lots of forest and pasture. In the south the sky was huge, you could see for miles and miles, orchards receding into the mountains. In the north it is very closed in, small valleys with steep mountains on all sides, lots of forest, cleared only for pasture. There are cows, sheep, and horses grazing everywhere. The sheep are fat with wool; the cows look dumb and relaxed as cows should. Low stone walls divide pastures. The houses are all stone, too - no white adobe here - although they do have red tile roofs. The country is very different and beautiful.

The road wound through mountains, not fast highway driving, but nowhere near the painstaking crawl we had driving to Ronda. For a while we were on a high plateau. Dozens of large birds were swooping and floating in the air currents. I don't know if they were hawks or eagles, but they were beautiful. At one point, we drove through a fog, and it started to rain a bit. Winding mountain roads, fog, rain, and now some road work! Anything else?? It was a bit interesting for a while, but the fog cleared and eventually the road wound downwards.

I made two stupid navigational errors, which unfortunately took a long time to correct, so by the time we got to the hotel, we had been driving for a long time. The hotel is on the road into town, a short walk from the historic centre, and has its own car park. We checked in, showered, and walked into town.

The town itself is pedestrian only - residents can drive in and out, but they can't drive around. The town is impossibly quaint - cobblestone streets, stone buildings, and everyone has colourful flowers on their windows and in little gardens in front.

This region, Cantabria, and the neighbouring Asturias, are known for a lot of local food products, and all the tourist shops in town are piled high with them: sobao (a sweet cake that looks like cornbread, made with wheat and milk), quesada (a sweet milk cake), local cheeses, sausage, anchovies. We were very hungry and ready for dinner, but of course dinner was hours away. The earliest anyplace serves dinner is 20:00h, otherwise known as 8 p.m. Desperate, we bought sobaos from a tourist store: a package of 12 costs 3 euros.

We went back to the hotel, and sat on the patio with our sobaos and a bottle of cheap vino tinto from Madrid. A teen group from the UK was at the hotel, and we watched them cavorting around, and drank our wine while we waited for dinner. Dinner was very simple, a fixed menu. I had fish soup, a "tortilla" (what we call a fritata) with chorizo, and flan for dessert. And this comes with a bottle of wine, a large bottle of water, and bread, for 10 euros each. It wasn't Gourmet Night at Fawlty Towers, but it was fine.

After dinner we completely collapsed. Allan has two days of cave paintings mapped out for us, and I made reservations online. We're not completely sure it will work out, but here's hoping.

Photos of the acqueduct at Segovia are here.

5.22.2013

madrid, day two

Today was the second half of our Madrid art tour.

We were out early again, went back to the same local joint for breakfast (the counterman remembered what we wanted, which we enjoy), and were once again at the museum before it opened. This was Reina Sofia, the national art centre and museum specializing in 19th and 20th century art, and home to Picasso's "Guernica".

Finally seeing Guernica in person was, for me, a highlight of this trip and one of the most moving art experiences I've had. I was quite overcome - in tears - both at the power and emotion conveyed in the painting, and by what it symbolizes. I felt the way I feel when people sing The Internationale; I am usually too choked up to sing, with tears streaming down my face. (I cry super-easily, so perhaps for someone else this might be shedding a tear or two.)

Just as the Spanish Civil War became a symbol for the international fight against fascism, for autonomy, for democratic ideals, for social justice - and the recognition that the struggle transcends national boundaries and identities - Guernica has come to symbolize genocide, oppression, and freedom struggles everywhere.

If you are not familiar with the painting Guernica, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start. The Picasso website's Guernica page is also good. It's hard to overemphasize this painting's importance, both politically and artistically, and I felt its full impact as an appreciator of art, a huge fan of Picasso, a socialist, and a soldier in the struggle for social justice.

Reina Sofia has one-page, laminated information guides in most rooms, and their page on this painting was excellent. There were also photos from Guernica's famous world tour, letters to and from Picasso's people and various art museums, and a famous set of photos of the work in various stages, taken by Picasso's partner at the time, Dona Marr. Having seen Goya's "The Third of May" yesterday at The Prado, it was easy to see Picasso's reference to that iconic Spanish painting in his own.

Eventually I tore myself away to see more from the permanent collection. There is a huge Dali retrospective at the Reina Sofia now (thank goodness we didn't go to Figuerres!), so the crowds were reduced, as most visitors were at the Dali show.

I have been on the lookout for Spanish Civil War history on this trip, especially in Barcelona, but have found none. This museum filled the gap. The permanent collection is very political, largely about the artist's role in revolution and resistance, and different ways art has been used in the service of politics, war, and freedom movements. It's also a good solid collection of Picasso, Miro, and Gris (all Spanish), and many other non-Spanish work of the same period. In another part of the collection, short films by people like Dali, Bunuel, and Antonin Artaud run in conjunction with paintings, models of theatre sets, magazine covers, and architectural models.

Before we left, we went back for another look at Guernica. I thought I could look more dispassionately now, but in a moment I was mesmerized again.

There is a lot to see at this museum, and I would like to go back one day. The museum itself, though, is poorly organized, with inadequate and confusing signage, and unfriendly, unhelpful staff - exactly the opposite of the Prado.

* * * *

We learned from our guidebook that the place where we found our cheap chicken dinner the other night is a Madrid institution with several locations: El Brillante. I think it's the Spanish equivalent of a diner or a New York coffee shop - a place where you can order anything, anytime of day or night, at reasonable prices. There is one on the big plaza near the metro stop for all the big museums, so we went in.

This one was decidedly more upscale than the one in Cuatro Caminos, but still totally down-to-earth. We sat at the huge counter. Allan ordered a grilled sandwich and I noticed a gambas (shrimp) special, so I ordered it and a plate of patatas bravas, fried potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce, which we had eaten in Barcelona. The shrimp comes with the shells on, including the eyes. They are delicious, but a mess to eat. The potatoes were perfect.

The restaurant appears to do a brisk business in calamari sandwiches - fried squid on a thick baguette. The special is two shrimps, a fried calamari sandwich, and a glass of beer for 7.50 euros. As I was piling my own shrimp shells on a plate, I noticed a man nearby wave away the extra plate for shells... and throw his shrimp shells on the floor. We looked around and saw that was what most people were doing. Yuck!

* * * *

After our lunch break, we walked a short way to the final side of Madrid's "golden triangle" of museums, the Thyssen Bornemisza. This is a small private collection of paintings with a huge chronological span, from medieval art through the late 20th century. Many great artists are represented, usually with more mundane works, along with many also-rans and wannabees. It's a very impressive collection for one individual or family to own, but as museums go, I was underwhelmed. I wonder if it weren't in physical proximity to The Prado and Sofia Reina, if it would be considered a great attraction.

* * * *

After a brief rest in the room, we managed to connect with our friend David, who is staying with a friend on the same street as our hotel! (David gave me a link to this hostal, so it is not entirely a coincidence.) We were hoping to have dinner with him, but that didn't work out, so we just had coffee and dessert - what Spanish people do between lunch at 2:00 and dinner at 10:00 - and walked around the neighbourhood. We told David we'd go back to his favourite spot for dinner, but pooped out and spent the evening in the room, blogging and reading.

Tomorrow we drive north for the final leg of the trip. We hope to see the aqueduct at Segovia on the way to Santillana del Mar.

madrid, day one

After our cheap pollo asado dinner, wine, and a shower, we had a new perspective on life. We woke up early the next day, had a little breakfast in a neighbourhood joint, and got to Museo Nacional del Prado - otherwise known as The Prado - before it opened. Our hotel in the Cuatros Caminos barrio is right near a big metro station where four different lines converge, and it was very easy to zip downtown.

The Prado is a big museum, not quite as huge and sprawling as the Metropolitan or the Louvre, but too big to see all of it. We had already decided to do a "greatest hits" tour, using the museum's own highlight guide - a floor plan plus thumbnail pictures of each painting with its room number. For an additional 9 euros at admission, we bought a beautiful 400-page guide. The book gives background and context to every painting and artist represented in the museum, plus a history of the museum itself, and is available in eight different languages. The English-language version is very well written. A steal at 9 euros, or free as an iPad app.

For all the museums and other sights of Madrid, admission is discounted for a variety of people: seniors, students, the "officially unemployed," large families, anyone on public assistance, and other categories I can't remember. I thought the "large families" category was interesting, especially since it's not defined.

The Prado covers European painting, with an emphasis on Spanish artists, up to the end of the 18th century. We looked at highlights from Fra Angelico, Raphael, Bosch and Durer, up through Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian. There's an emphasis on big three Spanish painters - Velasquez, Goya, and El Greco - with Picasso and other great modern Spanish painters represented in another museum. (They were originally in the Prado, too, but the modern collection now has its own home.)

The biggest name at the Prado is Velasquez, and most famous and most recognizable work of Velasquez is "Las Meninas". The painting is almost synonymous with The Prado. Another highlight was Goya's duet, "The Second of May, 1808", and "The Third of May, 1808", which speak to the horror of war and the futility and injustice of retribution. The Third of May has been quoted in many other paintings, most notably by Picasso.

We had a good time looking up the paintings in our guide and reading a few paragraphs about each one. We had lunch in The Prado's lovely cafe, saw another 20 or so paintings after lunch, and called it a day.

We took the metro back up to the Cuatros Camino neighbourhood and did our laundry at a local lavanderia. It is all automated - you don't even put in soap - and there is no attendant present. And for a working-class neighbourhood, it's not cheap. No wonder everyone hangs their laundry on their balconies and fire escapes.

In our room, we finished booking the final portion of the trip - tours of two caves with cave paintings and a room in a nearby rural town. The night before we left for Madrid, we had already booked one night in Bilbao and our last night in an airport hotel. So now we are all set for the remainder of the trip. We're super excited about the final week, and also looking forward to going home. We miss the dogs so much!

For dinner, I decided I was in danger of leaving Spain without having eaten one authentic, non-fast-food paella. Madrid is not a paella town, but we're not going to Valencia, home of paella, and there are supposed to be a few good places in Madrid. We chose one based on online reviews, and went back downtown. The food was good, and different than what I expected, but it turned out to be a very skippable experience. The restaurant was quite expensive and obviously caters to tourists. We did see a bit of central Madrid, with its crazily excessive architecture. Some of these buildings make the Victorians look like minimalists.

For those interested in the food itself, the rice used in the paella was not yellow saffron rice; it was wetter and chewier. Most of the paellas come with various combinations of seafood, there is one "traditional Valencia" with rabbit, chicken, and vegetables, one with chorizo, and one vegetarian. We asked if we could have a seafood paella with chorizo, and the waiter told us we didn't want to do that, it was disgusting. He made all kinds of faces and a thumbs-down! While we were enjoying our seafood paella, he brought us a small plate of chorizos, and suggested we try the paella with and without the chorizos. When he came back for the report, I told him the chorizo was delicious, but on its own. But I lied! Chorizo was great with the seafood.

The best paella and other Spanish rice-and-seafood dishes I have ever had were in a place in New York called The Spain, a restaurant I went to with my family as a child, and later re-discovered as an adult, and have turned many people onto. If the paella we had last night was typical (and it is said to be), then the food I've eaten in New York has a Latin American influence. And I have to say I prefer it.

As we staggered home on the metro, Madrid was just picking up. The nightlife here is infamous for starting at 10:00 and going til the wee hours. Unlike us!

5.21.2013

in which i officially become a librarian

We interrupt this travelogue to bring you an important announcement. I got my first librarian job!!

This is a part-time, temporary position in the children's department of the Central Library, where I was a page for 14 months. I am thrilled.

But wait, there's more!

I also interviewed in a competition for eight part-time positions, not librarians, but great experience doing reference and programming. I was one of the top scorers and was offered my choice of four of these positions, including two that are permanent.

So what does this mean? It means I can be a part-time librarian until March 2014, and if I don't have a full-time librarian position by that time, I have a permanent, part-time position doing reference and programming at the Central Library. I chose the "Reader's Den" department, for the opportunity to work with teens and do readers' advisory both youth and adults.

And here's what I didn't tell you. A few months ago, I interviewed for a permanent, full-time librarian job at one of Mississauga's branch libraries. It was my first librarian interview, and I bombed. Really crapped out. Then I had a combined 90 minutes of feedback with three different managers. I learned so much. I re-did my resume. I re-thought my entire approach.

I was still very disappointed. Permanent full-time librarian spots don't come up that often, and I had a chance, and I blew it. I've been totally beating myself up about it. But at my next opportunity, I landed the job.

You know what else I learned from that feedback? These managers, who are all young and in the midst of very successful librarian careers, all told me about positions they didn't get, interviews that they blew. One of them told me about repeatedly failing to get a senior librarian position, even though she was the acting senior librarian in the department, the incumbent in the position. She is one of the most successful young librarians in the system. Her candor made me feel much better.

As it happens, she was on the interview team for these eight reference/programming spots. I sensed she was impressed and happy to see me do well after her feedback.

So! I am a librarian! The new position starts June 3.

We now return to our regularly scheduled program, Laura and Allan Go To Spain.

5.20.2013

random notes from madrid

If I get a decent sleep one night, I'm not allowed to have one the next. Apparently it's a new law: no sleeping two nights in a row. So since I'm awake at 5:00 a.m. again, here is the latest round of notes I've been collecting in my notebook.

* * * *

When you drive on the highways in Spain, you see these giant billboards of a black bull. There are no words on them, just a huge shape of a bull. There's one on the cover of our Lonely Planet guidebook: here. I thought there was only one of these and it was famous. Turns out they are many of them.

Googling "giant bull billboards in Spain", I learned that these actually started out as advertisements, but are now a public-domain symbol of Spain. This Wikipedia page explains how the government of Spain banned all highway billboards (wow!), but how a court decision kept these wordless symbols on the road. I also found this: Catalan separatists want them gone.

On the road from Cordoba to Madrid, we also saw the same type of giant billboard of a man wearing a sombrero and toreador jacket with a guitar, and a giant Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on their horse and burro. These are not nearly as googleable as the giant bulls.

* * * *

We have seen several huge wind farms. The mountain and hill ridges are often lined with giant wind turbines. I couldn't help but think of Don Quixote's windmills. La molina is used as a symbol everywhere - on wine labels, for example.

We've also seen at least one huge concentration of solar power panels.

* * * *

Another thing I've seen, on the outskirts of every city so far: unbelievably dense concentrations of high-rise housing. The buildings are grim concrete masses, grouped very close together, and so many of them, in huge numbers. We saw this outside Paris, Barcelona, and Madrid, and on a smaller scale outside Cordoba. I think it must be public (social) housing. A lot of it, very ugly, and very isolated - well out of the life of the city, surrounded by highways. On the one hand, at least it exists. On the other... very sad.

* * * *

In Madrid, as in Barcelona, we are staying at a hotel called a "hostal". I haven't figured out the difference between a budget hotel and a hostal. Here in Madrid, the room is as very comfortable and clean, and small, but not tiny. Every room in the hotel has a private bathroom, there's wireless internet throughout, and a parking garage. So what makes it a hostal and not a hotel? Perhaps the absence of a bar or restaurant? The Wikipedia page for "hostal" is not very helpful.

* * * *

There are Irish pubs all over Spain, calling themselves "authentic Irish pubs," and advertising not only Guinness, but Murphy's. (Allan always points them out to me, because I love Murphy's.) In Barcelona, I thought the pubs might cater to a large ex-pat community, but we've seen them in every city so far. No idea why.

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A double room - una habatacion doble - is two single beds. One shared bed is una habatacion matrimonio. In addition to that amusing idiom, there is one long pillow that runs across the whole bed! It's annoying. Just because people share a bed doesn't mean they have the same pillow needs.

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Throughout our trip, when I ask for information or conduct a little transaction, there is a similar pattern. The person seems aloof or unfriendly (but who knows, they may be being polite according to their cultural norms). I speak in my slow, halting Spanish - using the more formal usted, and I smile - and they quickly become more helpful, often switching to English, or at least simplifying their Spanish, and by the time we are finished, they seem very helpful, warm, and friendly. I've gotten used to this.

And I observe how the tourists (usually Brits or Australians) who speak only English and make no attempt to say one word in Spanish never see this friendliness. In general I am often horrified by the way tourists treat hotel and restaurant staff. Allan says this is getting to me too much, both in person and online when I am checking out hotel reviews on Trip Advisor. One line in a hotel review summed it up for me: "To all you people complaining that the hotel staff doesn't speak English: LEARN SOME BASIC SPANISH. You're in Spain. Don't you expect people to learn some English before they come to the UK????"

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We fly home one week from today. Still to come: great paintings in Madrid, a Roman aqueduct in Segovia, cave paintings (I hope) in the north, the Bilbao Guggenheim, the Guernica peace museum, and hopefully some great Basque cuisine.

zuheros to madrid / madrid, night one

This post has two parts: the clerk and the lost.

The clerk.

I had a good night's sleep and woke up at the leisurely hour of 8:00. We had breakfast at the hotel and packed up, ready to hit the road to Madrid. And wouldn't you know it, the desk clerk handed me a bill for one dinner and two nights. I politely explained that I had called to cancel one night, and was told that was fine. Desk clerk said I called too late, I had to be charged for two nights. Naturally, I repeated my position.

We went back and forth for a while. He alternated between rapid-fire Spanish - to which I would reply, "No comprende, despacio, por favor" - and English. I alternated between English and my crappy Spanish. He would tell me I had cancelled too late, and I would tell him that I spoke to someone and that person said it was fine, I could cancel, no problem.

I was careful to be firm but not angry, to not lose my temper. I held in abeyance the "I'll pay for one night or we'll leave and pay for nothing" card. I repeated my position and he repeated his. I asked him, "Who would pay for a night at a hotel that they didn't use, when they called to cancel? Would you pay for a night at a hotel that you didn't use?" I reminded him there were three other couples at the hotel. They were not even half full. It's not as if they turned away potential customers because of my reservation.

Desk Clerk, throughout, was making exaggerated facial expressions of bewilderment and dismay, shrugging his shoulders and lifting his hands dramatically, in a pantomime of helplessness. This annoyed the bejesus out of me. At one point, I said, "It doesn't matter how many faces you make, we're not paying for a night of a hotel that we cancelled." Allan touched my arm and indicated that was not called for, so I didn't repeat it. Honestly, other than that, I was restrained. But please note, he looked like a bad soap opera actor.

This went on for quite some time. Another guest was waiting to speak to him, and I was aware that the hotel was at a disadvantage. They don't want a scene.

Eventually Desk Clerk "threatened" to call his partner. We encouraged him to do so. He made a phone call, at first speaking clearly so I could hear, then dropping his voice to a murmur, and eventually hanging up.

Desk Clerk cleared his throat and said, "My partner says that you had to tell the agency that you booked with, so the hotel is not charged a commission." I said, "Yes, he told me that. So I called hotels.com, and they said they would contact the hotel." Allan reminded Desk Clerk that the issue was now between hotels.com and the hotel.

More wrangling ensued. I was considering playing the pay-nothing card, wondering if he would use the call-the-police card. And then it happened.

He started to sniffle. Repeatedly. He began to prepare a new bill and print it out, all the while sniffling loudly and prominently. I thought, what's with the sniffles? An allergy? An odor? And then - I can hardly believe this as I type - he daintily but ostentatiously dabbed beneath his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. I thought, do my eyes deceive me? Is he pretending to cry??

I checked the new bill, and waited while Allan used his credit card, all the while staring at the Suddenly Weepy Desk Clerk. I thought, what on earth is going on???

Had this man gotten off the phone with his partner and said something like, "As it turns out, my partner didn't update me on your phone call. I will print a new bill," I would have thanked him, told him we had a lovely stay, and said a proper goodbye. But this... this was too crazy. I waited til Allan paid and got a receipt, then turned and walked out.

After Allan and I negotiated our way through the narrow streets and down the hill to the highway, I asked Allan, "What was with the pretend crying??" Then this story gets even crazier, because Allan thinks Suddenly Weepy Desk Clerk was really crying!! Apparently after I walked out, SWDC was so choked up he couldn't speak, wordlessly pushing the receipt at Allan and hiding his face in shame!

So what's going on here? A cultural trope I'm not familiar with, or a wacko in the wrong line of work? Allan and I have talked it to death, and laughed uproariously, but we cannot crack the mystery. I liken it to the over-emoting of bullfighting, or to football stars mugging for camera. Allan thinks if this was acting, SWDC has earned an Academy Award.

I know that many more people are reading this blog than are commenting. Some of you may remember our trip to Newfoundland and Unintentionally Hilarious Tour Guide. That generated a lot of fun comments. What do you all think of Suddenly Weepy Desk Clerk? Was he pantomiming hurt - "You wound me, Madam!" - or did I actually reduce a grown man to tears, merely by holding my ground? Any and all thoughts welcome!

The lost.

The drive from Zuheros to Madrid took about four hours, easy highway driving, and mostly the same lovely rolling hills of farmland, punctuated by the occasional olive oil factory. We hit the outskirts of Madrid and continued to follow our Google Map directions, with Allan doing a super job of changing lanes in complicated traffic streams. Still no problem.

Then we exited the highway, and suddenly nothing made any sense. Our Google Map directions didn't correspond to the street signs, and the street signs were often impossible to see, and if we made a mistake it was uncorrectable until we got to the next roundabout, and suddenly the street went down a tunnel and had no signs for several blocks so we didn't even know if we passed the street. And we were lost.

Poor Allan. He's driving a stick shift in city traffic, lost, again. We reminded ourselves it was daylight and all we had to do was find the right street, that this wasn't Grenada all over again. We reminded ourselves we knew this could happen, and we still prefer to drive rather than taking trains and buses. I kicked myself for not buying a map of Madrid earlier in the trip. (Allan says that we never would have thought to do so, since all we had to was make it from highway to hotel, then we'd be on the metro.)

I wanted Allan to stop the car, so I could ask for directions, but even that wasn't so easy, because stopping would mean blocking traffic. Finally an opportunity presented itself, Allan pulled over, and I went into a farmacia. To my amazement, my halting Spanish drew blank stares. It was as if I wasn't speaking Spanish at all. A woman understood I needed the neighbourhood Cuatro Caminos, and told me to take the subway. I explained that we were driving, and she called over a man, who then spoke so quickly I couldn't understand a word. I asked him to slow down. The man said to the woman, "Ella no entiende": she doesn't understand. I said, "Si, puedo comprender, pero no hablo espanol bien." He gave me rudimentary directions, indicating that we were very far away, but when we saw a certain street, we would be in Cuatro Caminos.

It worked. We made one or two mistakes that were able to correct at roundabouts, but for the most part we drove from that farmacia to our hotel. We hit Madrid at around 4:00. We got to the hotel at 6:30. Ay Dios mio!

I had been planning and hoping to do one of the three great Madrid museums tonight, but The Lost ate up too much time and stress. Now we have the greatest hits of three museums, plus laundry, plus David, in two days.

Cuatro Caminos

We're staying in a working-class, down-to-earth residential neighbourhood. Our friend David says it reminds him of his native Kensington in Toronto, and it reminds me very much of our old Washington Heights in New York. We found a neighbourhood joint for dinner and somehow had a pollo asado dinner for two - chicken, potatoes, salad, bread and a full litre of house wine - for 10 euros. Ten euros! For two! We weren't trying to be cheap, but we were happy to eat a hearty meal for a pittance.

So far Madrid is shaking my confidence. We haven't had any major language problems on this trip, or on any trip in a Spanish-speaking country. In Peru, no one spoke any English and we were always fine. Here, I can't understand anybody. Everybody speaks so fast! Is this what strangers feel like in New York?

Ah well, we're only in Madrid for a few days. Great art - and a lavanderia - awaits.

5.19.2013

ronda to cordoba / cordoba / zuheros

We left Ronda very early: we had to ring a bell at the desk and get the hotel manager out of bed to settle our bill. Poor guy shuffled out in his slippers, completely confused. We had to remind him we needed our parking validated, then remind him we needed to pay! Funny.

I had been up late blogging the night before, then woke up crazy early - a theme on this trip. I spent the wee hours of the morning getting directions and booking a hotel in Madrid, before it was even a halfway decent hour to wake up Allan.

As you might imagine, as we left Ronda, our main goal was to go around the mountains rather than over them. I navigate with a combination of Google Map directions, our own map, and a careful reading of the options at each roundabout and intersection. This seems to be the only way. The Google Map directions never completely correspond with reality. (Was that the fork where you bear left? Is this unmarked calle the street we need? And so on.) We seemed to be driving through the valley, but every time the road took a slight incline I was worried! Finally we could see that the mountains were safely in the distance, and could breathe easy.

We stopped at a gas station so I could get coffee (from a machine, with something like 8 possible choices of espresso, double espresso, cafe con leche, etc., but no tea), then later saw a big roadside cafe-restaurant with plenty of cars outside, and pulled in. It was La Meson de Diego! Having been to La Tala tapas a few nights ago, this was perfect. We took a picture of the sign on our way out.

Inside, it was lively and noisy, a bit of a shock! The place was hopping. We couldn't figure out if people were still partying from the night before or were up early for breakfast. Given that everyone eats dinner at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., could they possibly be having breakfast at 8:30 or 9:00? Even groups of 20-somethings? But it seemed very late to be ending Saturday night. There were men ordering wine and beer! This mystery went unsolved.

The only thing available for breakfast in this area is coffee or tea and tostados (a long piece of baguette, toasted) and your choice of whatever on that. You can get butter and jam, or aciete (olive oil) or tomate (crushed tomatoes that you dip the bread into), or the ubiquitous jamon. There was no menu, we just had to guess what might be available.

Shortly after our breakfast stop, we connected with one of the larger roads, which soon brought us to the highway, and we were on our way to Cordoba. Getting into Coroba, everything was very clearly marked, and we easily found a parking lot right near the historic district.

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One reason we left Ronda so early is that one of the things we wanted to see in Cordoba - an old synagogue - was only open in the morning. So we set out to find this right away. We were walking through beautiful, empty, narrow streets, whitewashed buildings on both sides, flowers spilling out of window boxes. Then we'd turn a corner and there would suddenly be an enormous crowd of people! This happened a few times before I realized that this was the reason we couldn't find a hotel room in Cordoba - a patio flower festival. It was an open house festival - people had maps with house numbers and were touring patios - the interior courtyards in Spanish houses - with spectacular flowers. The old streets are rabbit warrens, and although we asked several people where la sinogoga was, we couldn't find it.

We saw two older policemen who were wandering around, presumably doing security for this house festival. One started to describe where to walk, then asked his partner, Do you mind if I take the señora to la sinagoga? (In Spanish, of course.) And he walked us there! He asked if I spoke French - it seems to be a very common second language here, many people have asked us that when trying to communicate. Our police friend was frustrated because he wanted to tell me about Cordoba. So I said, "Esta bien, puedo comprender" (That's ok, I can understand), and he was off to the races. Cordoba has the best food in Andalucia, Cordoba is the most beautiful historic town in all of Spain, Cordoba is where the beautiful horses come from and the spectacular riders who are unparalleled in the world... It was very funny. We passed the Alcazar, a fortress that apparently was Party Central for The Inquisition. Our friend said, "You know 'The Inquisition'"? I found that kind of amusing. Uh yeah, I've heard of that. I said, "Si, yo soy judia".

He walked us through the whole lower historic district into the main touristy area, chattering in rapid-fire Spanish the entire time. We thanked him and shook his hand. As it turns out, La Sinagoga is only a small room that you can see in a few minutes. It's one of only three surviving medieval synagogues in Spain and the only one in the region of Andalucia. The only section is a small room with shards of Hebrew writing on the wall. It's near the Plaza de Maimonides, named for the famous Jewish scholar who was born in Cordoba in 1135. When Cordoba was under Islamic rule, there was a thriving Jewish community, but the Catholics put an end to that.

The main attraction in Cordoba is La Mezquita, called the Great Mosque of Cordoba, or the Cathedral of Cordoba, or the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. Tellingly, all the tourist information in the town itself reads: "the Cathedral (the former mosque)". (Incidentally, I'm spelling the word Cordoba incorrectly, without the accent mark over the first o. It's pronounced Cordoba, not Cordoba.)

We entered the courtyard filled with orange trees, where people were milling about. The Mezquita was closed, but we saw guards directing people to queue up at a side entrance, so we waited there, too. After a while, a wedding party emerged, many men and at least one woman in military dress, and the other women decked out in wedding-party clothes. When they had all exited, everyone rushed in - and ran to sit down in a chapel! We had been waiting in line for a mass! Guards were directing everyone to seats and saying, "No photo, no video" - in case tourists were trying to use the mass to get back-door admission to the site. What a hoot. I didn't want to sentado for the mass, so they made us leave.

So we went back to waiting in the patio area. On Sunday La Mezquita is only open to the public in the morning, then after 3:00 in the afternoon. There are a few other little things to see in town, including a small archeology museum, but the narrow streets are choked with people, it's very difficult to find anything and very easy to get lost, and we had the feeling it could take an hour to find something that would then take 10 minutes to see. After we waited a while, I suggested we go get something to eat.

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There are zillions of touristy eating places among the zillions of schlock souvenir stores, so we went off the main drag and found a tiny place with a handful of tables and a few men standing at the bar. There were no free tables, but an older man offered to drink his wine at the bar so we could sit down. He did this like it was no big deal, like he wasn't supposed to be sitting anyway.

We ordered a bunch of tapas and wine, and while we were eating, people started piling into the restaurant, speaking Spanish very loudly and jockeying for an inch of space at the bar. We thought it was crowded when we walked in! There were one or two other tables with tourists, but mostly the place was packed with locals.

These places are all lovely - very small, usually painted a dark blue or purple, with mosaic plates on the wall, posters of bullfighting or flamenco events, with tiny tables and little stools to sit on. Usually one person is behind the bar and one friendly server runs around like a maniac. We had olives, really good chorizos, little medallions of grilled beef in sizzling garlic oil, and garlickly potatoes that we couldn't even finish. Plus wine, of course. And I immediately wanted to go sleep. It all caught up with me and I was ready for bed. But it was time to see the Mezquita.

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The Mezquita was an ancient mosque that was taken over by the Catholics, who built a church right in the middle of the mosque, converting the minaret to a bell tower and plopping a cathedral nave at one end. Our guidebook pointedly mentions that the site was originally Christian, and that the Catholic takeover was re-establishing the church, but that is a bit disingenuous. There was a foundation of an early Christian church on the site, but that church was no longer in use when the mosque was built.

The famous and most defining feature of the building is the red-and-white terracotta arches - all 856 of them - a forest of arches that echo each other through the cavernous space (see here). But in smack in the middle of this beautiful space is a hulking altar complete with gory crucifixions, clumsy paintings of saints, and all manner of Catholic iconography. Around the perimeter of the space there are dozens of small chapels, all very gaudy and inelegant, in my opinion.

Besides the beautiful arches, the highlight of the space is the mihrab, a prayer niche facing Mecca, dating from the 10th century, with all or most of the Islamic decoration intact. Like what we saw at the Alhambra, there is stonework so intricate that it almost looks like lace, and elegant Arabic script used decoratively. Islam, like orthodox Judaism, takes seriously the "thou shalt have no graven image" commandment, so there are no representations of saints, no biblical scenes, no people - just words, shapes, and designs. In this space, the contrast could not be more obvious - every time you see people (saints, biblical characters), you know you're in the church.

I find it significant that all the official information refers to La Mezquita as a cathedral only. Spanish Muslims have repeatedly petitioned the Vatican to be allowed to worship again in the building, but the Church refuses. Some people act as if The Mezquita is a monument to coexistence, as if the mosque and the church share a space. But clearly, it is anything but. To me it feels like a desecration, and it's very sad. The space is beautiful, though, and very interesting.

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We drove out of Cordoba, back to the same sort of country we had seen in the morning - vast areas of rolling hills planted with orchards, as far as you can see, with a mountain range in the far distance. Every once in a while, you see a town nestled in a valley between two hills, or on a hilltop - white buildings with red roofs. We passed by several of these towns until we found our turnoff, and followed some windy roads up, up, up onto one of the hills, to the little village of Zuheros.

Zuheros' striking feature is a castle - actually a piece of a castle, all that's left of an Moorish stronghold from the 10th century, rebuilt by the Christians in the 14th - built directly into the rock. Behind it is a tiny white town, including several restaurants with views and at least one hotel. We drove up into the town on impossible narrow streets - much to Allan's dismay - and found the hotel. The desk person spoke so beautifully slowly in Spanish that I could understand every word. I wish everyone did that!

We walked around the little town a bit, mostly looking at the incredible view. It's obvious why a castle was built there. Now it overlooks mostly farmland and a few towns. In the near distance below, we could see goats being herded.

We had dinner at the hotel's restaurant. I was looking forward to a non-tapas dinner; as it turned out, this went in the complete opposite direction. For starters, Allan ordered a "selection of local goat's cheeses," that turned out to be a meal's worth of cheese, generous portions of six different varieties. I ordered a "local salad" - a composed salad of oranges, tuna, figs, salt cod, and some other strange things - that was also a meal. Then our main courses arrived: the sea bass I ordered turned out to be an entire fish, and I could eat only a few bites. It was kind of amusing, although I wish I could have taken it with me to eat as leftovers. Alas, no fridge or cooler.

The restaurant starts serving dinner at 8:00, and I think we got there at 8:45 or so. But of course, because at 3:00 or 4:00 everyone is eating tapas or having coffee and pastries. So by the time dinner ends, we're both tired and I'm completely collapsing from lack of sleep. Tomorrow is a driving, relaxing, and taking care of business-y things day.

Photos of Cordoba are here.

Photos of Zuheros are here.