We're having a wonderful time here. We went to Toledo and saw the Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary, built in the thirteenth century. It is astounding not merely for its size and scope, but in consideration of the meager amounts of surplus energy available to the society that erected it. To think that with the little it had, it constructed a monument to faith that might have gone to mundane survival pursuits.
We then went to an intimate flamenco concert. The dancing was breathtaking. I found myself muttering ole!, or some such impromptu variety of "whoah!" without any provocation other than the dancing itself. If you're ever in Spain, I highly recommend it.
The city, like Las Vegas, apparently never sleeps. But instead of tourists being responsible for the town's insomnia, the residents are out in full force, jet lag being an eye witness to the spectacle.
The cobbled streets are a delight to walk on, and alcohol is consumed in large quantities to ward off the cool, rainy night's grip. Though, I am told that the quantity imbibed by the city is not diminished by warm weather. Merely colder drinks are served up.
"No time like the present" seems to be Madrid's motto. No sooner than a student mentioned to me that the centrally located hostel I'm residing at is on a street that used to be prostitute central did he point out an available lady. It was noon.
Tomorrow we visit Madrid's museums. We are making an effort to partake of all things Spain -- food, drinks, culture, music, art, religion. The contrasts are striking. A society dominated by young people still tithes to old institutions popularly considered antiquated. Prayer services in Saint Mary's of Toledo were populated by elderly -- night clubs by the young. Clearly, neither group's spirits are diminished by Spain's ongoing economic stresses.
Conversations in the cafe revolved mostly around issues of self-sustainability -- not quite a fitting counterpoint to the festivities that Greater Madrid offers.
I have been invited to the home of a student and reader who has promised a multi-coursed Spanish meal not to be forgotten. I will of course be required to "sing" for my meal. Hopefully, energy crunches will not come up in between chews and swallows.
I'll share more of the tour as it progresses and do my best to give a taste of things Spain. Already though, I can recommend visiting. Certainly if you have friends here willing to show you around, it's a great place to spend some time.
This morning in Spain we visited the oldest bakery in Madrid, right around the corner from the hotel. Out of a variety of cookies and pastries, I settled on a croissant.
Madrid is a walking town, and people are up and out at all hours of the day and night. We walked the town, notably past the palace and royal gardens. It was a national holiday, so people were everywhere.
That evening we were invited to the house of a socially distinguished student/reader who prepared a special Spanish meal for the occasion. The conversation was lively and I was later informed the host was well pleased.
* * *
The next evening we were taken to a restaurant for another authentic Spanish dish called cocido. To say it was a heavy meal is a gross understatement. The soup course alone was filling.
It's hard to over stress the amounts of people always out on the streets and in cafes. It seems to be a city of people who do not like to stay at home. It is certainly that their flats are modestly sized, but even in inclement weather people are everywhere.
Last night at three in the morning, a group of people who were loudly talking at a downstairs bar began to loudly sing. Apparently, this is not atypical.
While the other day we saw a few prostitutes in the streets, today there were dozens. I thought there may be more now because of the economic downturn, but it seems that there are always many, as it is legal and protected. In fact, the pimps here are illegal.
This morning we took an early bus to Granada, the plan being to spend some time there and in Cordoba. The bus ride from Madrid was about five hours long, but was otherwise comfortable.
For the trip, a student handed to me some confections made from recipes dating back over 150 years. One was strikingly similar to the Middle-eastern desert halva while another was made of almonds that similarly reminded me of a Middle-Eastern delight.
This got my mind thinking to the first night here, and the Flamenco concert. If you removed the Spanish and replaced it with Arabic, the sounds were very similar to the music of the legendary Um Kulsum. She was nothing short of the Aretha Franklin of the Arab world several decades ago.
Flamenco music is extremely dramatic, as was Kulsum's, and while the instrumental sounds are different, the vocal expressions are extremly similar. I can't help but think that the Arab influence in Spanish culture found its way into this Gypsy music, as well as in the deserts I was given.
And in this same vein, the faces here strongly remind me of Arabic culture. Noses are not large but prominent, eyes are almond-shaped, and cheek-bones are high. Really, the resemblance is hard to miss.
Perhaps I'll get a clearer picture of this trend outside the city, where so many cultures, nationalities, and traditions are represented.
* * *
It's Friday and we take a five hour bus to Granada. I'm out of commission for most of the journey, but I'm told the scenery on the way was breathtaking. Considering the beauty of Granada, I'm inclined to accept the report without question.
We don't spend five minutes in the hotel room. We drop off our few items and head to the Alhambra.
Describing in the Alhambra in words that do it justice isn't likely. Perhaps a poem would do. A picture would be worth thousands of words, but being there and seeing it with one's own eyes is yet another matter.
When in the conservatory I played a piece by Tarrega called Recuerdos de la Alhambra. The tremolo piece is beautiful, but I can tell you as a builder that it took a lot longer in man hours for them to construct the Alhambra than it did for Tarrega to write the virtuoso piece and for me and him to master the guitar sufficiently to play it, combined. Times a thousand. It's a work of art on a gigantic scale.
I thought of a skit Mel Brooks might have in a History of the World movie or spoof on life, or satire of the Alhambra, as a way to get across why it's indescribable.
Imagine a scene where an escaped convict, perhaps one played by Federico Beninni, finds himself in the awkward position of impersonating a tour guide at the Alhambra in order to avoid detection of law enforcement. He now has to improvise guiding tourists around the site without any personal knowledge of the place or its history.
He decides it was built by one man who must have been out of his mind. "This place is crazy," he begins, as he leads the tourists around the monument to wealth.
"You see the intricacies here? You see how crazy this man was?" He catches the name of a spanish King, Carlos, on a plaque and decides Carlos built the place, when in fact the man referenced, Carlos V, merely decided many centuries later (1527) to build his palatial estate -- one that pales in comparison to the Alhambra -- right in the center of the Alhambra. Talk about location, location, location!
"Carlos was a mad man," the convict continues. "He carved this entire thing out of stone and marble, which he brought in from hundreds of miles away."
"How mad was he? Well, he was so mad that when I consider all the crazy people and places I've tour guided in the world, Carlos is the craziest." He pauses. "Does anyone have any question about how loco Carlos was? I'm here to answer them."
The outlaw shows the tourists room after room, balcony after balcony, one more stunning than the next. Here and there, he points to walls, doorways, windows, and rooms, mumbling "crazy," "nuts," "coo coo," and "totally loco." Sometimes he just starts to giggle, half from what he is seeing and half from what he is doing there in the first place.
At one point, he decides that while he must have lost his mind to attempt this sort of subterfuge, at least someone in the world at one point was crazier than he was. Carlos.
"Look at how crazy he was. You see that? That's crazy, no? And look at this. It doesn't get much crazier than this.
"Now I want to show you where Carlos finally lost his mind." The escaped convict points to a random carved line in the stone of a wall, an arch, a doorway, wherever. "You see this line? That's it. That was where Carlos finally cracked."
Afraid he is going to lose his own mind, our hero decides at that moment to make a break for it. He exists scene, right; right out a window, landing in palatial gardens below.
I don't know if this conveys anything of the place, but Google the Alhambra and then think of this skit -- one that might have fit well in a Mel Brooks movie -- and add that dimension. Even the Taj mahal seems tame in comparison to the Alhambra.
That evening we went to see the Alhambra, illuminated, from a distant viewpoint on a hill. We then ate a few tapas at a restaurant on another hill featuring a Flamenco troupe. Four trained dancers stomped on the stage in Spanish tap dancing fashion to the rhythms of guitars and hand-clapping. This group also showcased a flautist.
Today we're off to Cordoba.
* * *
In Cordoba we toured Mezquite, a church build over 1000 years ago. It's hoariness was apparent from the flying buttresses, used in the Dark Ages to keep tall walls from falling outward.
Back in Madrid, we ate tapas standing in a crowded restaurant, then went out for a traditional hot chocolate with a fried long pastry called (I believe) churro. While the hot chocolate was thick, neither it nor the pastry were very sweet, which was refreshing.
We walked around various Madrid districts, including the "gay" neighborhood, the young drinking crowd, the intellectual scene, and a lane for the prostitutes.
While the prostitutes during the day are very laid back, at night they appeared more aggressive, approaching men without solicitation. At a moment when I was away from the rest of the group, one approached me and said something in Spanish. I replied with an apology for my limitation to the English language. She replied in English, suggesting straight out that we have sex.
While I had no intention of taking her up on her offer, I had questions and we soon settled into relaxed conversation. She told me her name but I will omit it here. Her English was competent and she was polite enough to answer all my questions with what seemed to be genuine honesty. At the end, I offered to buy something for her from the local convenience store. She asked for a particular product that cost under 5 euros, and bade her good-bye as I thanked her for her generosity with her time.
The story I got from her was this one: She is a 28 year old Hungarian immigrant with two children back home, ages 7 and 12. They are currently being cared for by her parents, she being divorced. She misses her children terribly, and plans to return to Hungary in two weeks. She works three days a week as a cleaning lady for an elderly woman just outside of Madrid, and then sells sex to men on weekends.
I asked if liked what she did and she replied that she didn't, though with surprisingly little passion or sadness in her eyes. Her main complaints were that she was tired a lot and never received any pleasure from the sex. While she is not very ashamed of her work, she has no intention of ever letting her parents or children know what she did in Spain to make extra money.
She takes men to a building that seemed to be about 100 yards away from where she was standing, though the entrance was around a corner. I looked later and found a man standing at the door. He seemed to be without distinguishing qualities, though he was not young. She says the heated room costs her 5 euros and she asks 25 from her client, leaving her 20 euros for 15 minutes of work. That would translate into a little over $100 per hour except that, as she complained that in today's economic downturn, she doesn't have but a few customers per night. The cold is not too bad, but she doesn't like having to stand around for hours.
She is not worried about sexually transmittable diseases because she uses a condom, and provides the condom for every customer. I asked about condoms breaking, but she didn't seem to worry about it as, in her experience, it never happened. She said that a few times the men have asked her if she wanted to have sex, and gave her the choice. One man from Canada gave her the choice, and one from Spain. Both were fairly young. She says that she would never choose sex if given the choice. However, she offered the men massages and they accepted.
She only uses condoms with spermicidal gel and lubricant as she wants to avoid pregnancy at all cost and without lubricant sex would be too rough as she never gets aroused, or has time to get aroused. She doesn't mind any position for sex but she does not allow men who are too big to choose positions that might hurt her.
On that note, she reports that she has never been the victim of any violence from a customer. She does not like pimps and feels she does not need them since what she is doing is legal and protected. She also reports that she is not so strained economically that she does not allow herself to choose her clients. While she does not approach men who are in a group, she avoids men who she does not feel attracted to in some way. She certainly avoids men that appear unfriendly or dirty.
While I have no way to accurately test the validity of her responses, from what I hear from my Spanish students her answers fall well within the realm of possibility.
* * *
This morning we drove to Segovia to look at a Roman aqueduct and eat at a famous restaurant that is often the host of the king of Spain, as well as celebrities that might pass through. As a side note, I must report that we've been taken by our various hosts to many of the finest restaurants in Spain.
While I've seen aqueducts in photographs, being near one was another experience altogether. Each stone had notches in it, presumably used to hoist the carved blocks to their final destination in the structure. The size and scope of the project were fairly overwhelming. Considering its venerability too, and one gets a glimpse of the shared bond humans may experience across the millennia.
We had no time to lose on our way back to Madrid to the home of a New Age practitioner who invited dozes of people to her house to hear me speak. About thirty people crowded into her modest class area. The discussion lasted for about three hours, with one of my trip's benefactors doing the translation.
I was impressed by the amount of attention the subject matter commanded in a group of people to whom the concepts were relatively knew. Several people afterwards wanted further information.
One thing of obvious note was that there were only two or three men in the entire group. The women ranged in age from 20's to 60's, and it is likely that all the men that did come were accompanied by a women, perhaps one who was the impetus for attending. It was only women who approached me afterward, asking for more of a connection, though one had a man tag along.
For years I've contemplated the overall imbalance in gender participation. While it is mostly male students that want training, the subject apparently attracts far more women than men. I am sure the reasons are varied, but the curious point is that those reasons reign in Spain, and other nations, as well as in the United Sates.
The talk was a success all around, and so we went to have dinner at a restaurant that specializes in paella. Oh, I must mention that the famous restaurant in Segovia served some of the finest desserts I've ever tasted, and the best bread pudding imaginable.
* * *
Today was our first relaxing day in Spain. We were invited to lunch at the finest Chinese restaurant in Madrid by the hostess of several evenings ago. She wanted to talk and build further a friendship for future communication when I'm in the States and future visits to Spain. The conversation was enjoyable and informal, and the food was delicious.
After waking around the city for a bit, we retired to the hotel and slept off the remaining vestiges of jet lag.
That night we went out for dinner with one of our hosts. I might add that we are always taken out to extremely fine restaurants that serve something special or Spanish or exquisite. We really got a "taste" for Spain in more ways than one.
* * *
The next day we took a high-speed train to Seville. Seville is warmer than Madrid, being a few hundred miles south. It is a beautiful walking city, where again we visited an ancient Cathedral.
A type of orange tree lined the streets. We saw the same tree in Granada and a few other southern cities. I am told that the fruit is not edible, so I suspect that at some time of the year the sidewalks and streets need to be cleaned of thousands of oranges. That, or the birds eat them.
This is our last day in Spain, which is now my favorite country in Europe. Already our hosts are inviting us back, and on a return visit it might be nice to visit Italy, but from photos it appears that the north of Spain is as or more beautiful than the south. That combined with its history and it is truly a country of wonders, both natural and human-made.
I imagine the heaps of mail waiting for me at home, and the work of 2011 that needs to be addressed. I consider all of the work that needs to be done before the end of the year, and while strolling the streets of Seville it all seems a world away.
* * *
People, we are told, are pretty much the same wherever you go. It's been a few years since I traveled outside the United States, but I can't say I agree with that statement anymore. People in Spain seem very different to me than other people's, and I like the differences very much. My life is squarely set where it is, but I would be very happy to see Americans adopt some of the attitudes of Spanish people.
I don't want to go too much into what those differences are, because it may be that words can't fully capture them anyway, but I can talk about what those differences mean.
First, I can say that Spain's is a more open and trusting society than the one I live in. I could see that in the reactions of complete strangers to one or another of my hosts, such as when we needed to stop and ask for directions. The people stopped were consistently giving with their time, genuine, and friendly. I'm not saying you don't find that anywhere else, but the degree of these qualities in peoples of all walks of life and ages in Spain was striking and certainly not typical of Americans, or the British or French.
Coming back to the States, I am met with mail representing bureaucracy, more bureaucracy, paper pushing, inherent distrust, and procedural mumbo jumbo empty of life but promising a full filing cabinet. I know all of these things are in Spain and just about everywhere now, which is not a good augury for the human race, but I also know that the unspoken familial relation that people share in Spain and elsewhere probably goes a long way to dulling the edge of invariably dehumanizing protocols.
And again, we are talking about energy. When trust in society falters, more energy is required to compensate for the distrust so everyone's position is guarded. The consequences, however, is that we are living guarded lives among people we increasingly distrust, because we live in a system that de facto assumes you can't trust anyone. When we are made to assume we can't, we don't. Then, when we stop someone on the street, we aren't really sure why we are being stopped, what is the real motive, how much time we can afford to give, etc.
I know it's not black and white, but then Spain's political spectrum similarly does not seem to be exemplary of the stark polarities we live with in America. Here, socialism is practically a bad word. There, it's a political party. The rich in Spain have not yet taken control of the legislature to the degree that they can reduce their taxes and remove the social safety net that keeps Spaniards off the streets and with free medical attention. Actually, people in Spain love their streets and they walk on them endlessly; the homeless were few and far between, and probably had a place to go if they wanted to go there.
In societies replete with complexities, the simple life isn't very simple at all. Nothing is simple anymore, apparently. Nothing is obvious. Common sense is not common. Reason isn't part of the equation. I've settled into a routine of blogs and online media sources that I generally trust, and it's a rare day when I'm not outraged from the news. And of course, if you're not outraged today, you're simply not paying attention.
I may understand it in terms of human psychology, history, and evolution, as well as ontologically; as a philosopher, I may have even come up with a few solutions, or at least provided insight into a few opportunities humans collectively have. But with information and knowledge come responsibility, and carrying out one's responsibilities in complex societies comes with a price. That price usually opens the door to complexity -- the very thing the search for meaning sought to avoid. One leaves the world and returns to it with some knowledge one mined in the caverns of the hinterlands, only to miss the cave.
Of course, we all ask in our own ways: Is it all worth it? What's it all for? In Spain, after the lecture in which I started with the question, What is real?, I might have mentioned that someone from the audience asked, "So after all this, what is real?" Imbedded not only in the answer to that question, but in the question and process of questioning themselves, are signposts on the road to reality. But unless one asks these questions regularly, it's hard to see the signs or remember what they said.
Then, many of the signs still beg the question, Why? It's a question our science doesn't answer, no religion or political party properly answers, and most schools of philosophy avoid like the plague. It's practically in vogue to avoid the question, it being viewed as one that plagued an early humanity. We've outgrown it....
When we are just remembering it and realizing how hard it is to answer. That's in part because it's not requiring an answer. In truth, answering it and then putting it to bed is the disease of monolithic beliefs and identities, no matter from what institution they emerge.
But it's also in part because the question takes time. It takes a lifetime. Some practices and disciplines may accelerate the process, but it still takes a life of either stringent energy conservation or easy energy. These days, both are in increasingly short supply as we seem to have an endless supply of paper on which to print that which conveys little meaning, little trust, and little honesty.
Yes, I know there are plenty of exceptions. If it were not for those exceptions, our systems of living would have probably imploded a long time ago. As it is, I fear we can only delay the inevitable unless we become committed to working together to find our way. In Spain when we were lost, someone was always there to help and be generous with their time and experience. I'd very much like to see that spirit of freely sharing and communicating taken to a global level where we do our best to know the possible ways instead of maintaining blind allegiance to our way as the only way.
The theory of self brings everything home to energy and awareness, but that still leaves a world of possibilities where people, in applying those principles, live their lives in harmony with nature and energy conservation. Science too may bring everything back to its methods, the data gathered, and the honesty of interpreting data to find the larger truths and facts, but many voices are needed in science precisely to rise to the great heights of realization.
A long time ago, my father told me as a child, when I asked about what God was, that God as he appreciated it, informed by his reading of Martin Buber, was in people coming together to build, through communication, higher structures of knowledge and understanding. I must say that I see the need for communication, in this age of rapid communication, has only dramatically increased since the day I heard that answer.
Read the news and, like a soap opera, you'll see over and over that honest communication is in very short supply. When in Israel, I watched Young and the Restless reruns. The plots all revolved around one thing and one thing only: secrets. People who cared about the people in their lives, mostly, weren't telling those people and other people what was really going on. It got boring, but I've since realized that on a global scale, we are very secretive and delight in misinformation, disinformation, and failed communication. Perhaps I should qualify that to mean that the rich prefer a society where communication and information are filtered, lest they lost their power in the face of an awake and aware public, but someone, and by that I mean billions of people, is playing along with this charade of an open society. Julian Assange has exposed more in exposing than the exposition itself exposed.
With communication and dissemination of information, we get far more minds working together on the challenges we face, instead of half the minds working to deny the information and the other half working to proliferate it. We are wasting so much time and energy just on determining what is real in the mundane sense. We are a long way off from collectively agreeing on anything, even things as fundamental as our evolution or history, let alone on the larger reality we live in. Global warming is still debated, though it is not anymore debatable than whether the sun shines.
In Spain, I could see a strong Catholic vein running through the society, but it's very unlike the Evangelism we have in America. Extremely religious people in Spain, and most of Europe for that matter, may hold beliefs that have no scientific basis, but far less than Americans hold beliefs that are outright contradicted by science. It is one thing to believe in that upon which science makes no comment. It is another to believe that which science denies over and over, and with good reason and good data.
No, I don't think believing the world is 5000 years old is the source of humanity's miseries. I would like, however, to make a connection between the failure of education and information dissemination to wipe out such an unscientific belief and the failure of education and information dissemination to bring people together to face the challenges to our harmonious survival. If we can't agree on something as simple as the age of the earth, how can we agree on what to do about the fact that we are systematically destroying the window of conditions this planet affords us for our survival? If we can't trust each other enough to give and share the time it takes to have rich dialogue that ignores the trivial reality of political parties and religious identities, how can we trust that we have each other's best interests at heart when faced with the challenges of overpopulation and resource scarcity?
A species trained to distrust itself and with predilections of suicidal activities is, when faced with a population/resource crisis, far more likely to war than talk.
Lately, I've heard from several corners of my life a similar argument used in entirely unrelated contexts. The argument generally runs: If you/me/he/she/it/people/humanity/a country needs to go down that road, well then let it. Let it go to the farthest limits and find its own horrible conclusions.
Is that our fate? Are we all just letting each other walk down that road? Is that the only road we can walk together in silent acquiescence?
Passersby in Spain weren't content to let us walk down the wrong road. Their friendliness wasn't subtle. It was obviously different than the response I'd have in America, and I didn't do any of the talking. It was all my host, who was a Spaniard, so there was no extra kindness for tourists going on.
It's in us to be friendly with each other. Spain reminded me of that. Though I am painfully aware of the fact, having been around the world, that Spain is special, hope lives as it is still only humans in Spain.
I thank my hosts who sponsored the trip and all I met for their hospitality, kindness, and generosity. Thank you for the memories of a lifetime.