Sunday, April 03, 2016

Roman holiday in western Spain

Cindy inside the Moorish fortress in Mérida. The Visigoths built on top of the Roman fort, and the Moors built on top of that. Then came the Catholic kings . . . .
From the northeast of Spain where we live, Pamplona, to the wilds of Extremadura in the southwest is about eight hours by train or by car. We wanted to visit Mérida, which was an important Roman city 2,000 years ago and has many of the best preserved buildings from that era anywhere.

Extremadura is also famous for its hams, which come from pigs that run free and feed on acorns (bellotas). In the supermarket, Iberian ham runs for about $20 a pound. But the special purebred black pigs raised on certain farms produce hams that fetch $500 a pound or so in Japan and England.

Think Ben Hur

During Roman times, people in what is now western Spain were crazy for horse racing -- cuadrigas, or four-horse chariots, were the Formula 1 of the time -- and the horses from that part of Spain were famous throughout the empire for their speed and endurance. Many of the best charioteers to compete in the Roman Colosseum came from this region.

The Circus Maximus in Mérida was not excavated until the 19th century. It's about a half mile long, so it is comparable in length to a harness racing track. It could seat about 30,000 people.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Latin dancing in Germany, Cologne cathedral and Berlin

We spent two weeks over Christmas visiting daughter Bridget in Northwest Germany, specifically Gelsenkirchen (blue marker). Took a trip to visit the fantastic Cologne cathedral (yellow marker) and spent three days in freezing Berlin (red marker). (You can zoom in on the map for more detail).

The most fun was getting to see her dance "Swan Lake" (left) in a choreography that she created, and to meet some of the dancers and colleagues.

After the New Year's Eve performance of "Swan Lake", Bridget had a party at her apartment. The Brazilians and the Cubans from the dance company, and their compatriots, got things moving on the dance floor.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Virgin of Guadalupe reveals a language mystery

The image of the Virgin in the Basilica in Mexico City.
Here in Spain my colleagues sometimes kid me on my use of Mexican expressions.

Mexicans have a tendency to add the diminuitive suffix -ito or -ita to many words in ordinary conversation: your close friends might be your "amiguitos" (little friends), "Aquí tienes algún papelito" (here's some little paper for you) or "Ven aquí en la sombrita" (come on over here in the little shade).

So sometimes I might say, "tomemos una cervecita" (let's have a little bottle of beer), "vamos por un cafecito" (let's get a little cup of coffee).

I wondered about why this tendency was so common in Mexico but not in Spain. I think I discovered the reason while reading a book about the Virgin of Guadalupe -- the most revered religious figure in  Mexico and much of Latin America.

It was a translation into Spanish of the original text from the Aztec language, Nahuatl, describing the Virgin's miraculous appearance to the Indian Juan Diego in 1531 and the sign she left him -- her image on his tunic.

In the Spanish translation from Nahuatl, Juan Diego calls Mary, "my Little Virgin" (mi Virgencita) and she calls him "my little son" (mi hijito). It turns out that the translator was struggling to find an equivalent in Spanish for the Aztec suffix -tzin, which means something like "beloved" or "revered" but also is used for children and pets. So the translator used the closest Spanish equivalent, the diminuitive suffix, -ita or -ito.

Nahuatl is still spoken by more than 1 million Mexicans, and the linguistic tendency has lived on, so that when people are being friendly, they use the diminuitive for all kinds of everyday things.

English translators of Nahuatl have the same problem, as described in an article about the original text describing the Virgin's miracle:

A challenge for the English translator is the suffix -tzin, heavily used in this text. On the one hand, it is a diminutive, used for children and pets. On the other hand it is reverential, used for lords and gods. And sometimes it seems to be thrown in merely to show that the situation, the audience, or the text itself is classy or much loved or both. It is inaccurate to equate -tzin routinely with the Spanish diminutive, which is more limited in scope, although probably somewhat expanded in Colonial Mexico under the influence of Nahuatl usage.

So my use of the diminuitive sounds funny here to my colleagues. They enjoy kidding me about other Mexican expressions. For example, the professors refer to the students here as "chavales", roughly "kids", while in Mexico we called them "chavos/chavas". Add that to my soft Latin American accent (not as guttural on the "j" sound, softer consonants), and I am charming without even having to try.

If your Spanish is good and you really want to explore the many variants of diminuitives in Nahuatl, I recommend this four-page excerpt from a book by Jose Ignacio Davila Garibi, who wrote extensively about Nahuatl in the 1920s and '30s. (Thanks to Angel Arrese for calling my attention to it.)

Hillary Clinton and the Virgin 

When Hillary Clinton was secretary of state in 2009, she made a visit to the basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City where Juan Diego's tunic bearing the Virgin's image is framed and displayed (see my photo above).

Despite the vast intelligence-gathering resources of the United States government, and the enormous staff at Hillary's disposal, she made a horrible gaffe. She asked the priest who was explaining the image to her, "Who painted it?" The priest replied, "It was God painted it."

The Mexican press let her off easy. Since Hillary and Bill are people they like, they wrote it off as an itty-bitty error.


Basque language has mysterious origins
When you say "Tepotzotlán", it's like magic 
How to spend nine weeks in Europe without losing your shirt
Columbus Day story: How he brought me to Spain
20,000-year-old cave art and the north coast of Spain
In Pamplona, they party like it's 1591 
Barcelona's art and architecture make it a favorite
Cordoba's main attraction: mix of Jewish, Moorish, Christian cultures  

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Celebration for Francis Xavier, born nearby, patron saint of Navarra

At a Christmas market in the bull ring.
PAMPLONA, Spain -- Today, Dec. 3, is a public holiday in all of the province of Navarra to celebrate the feast of St. Francis Xavier, who was born in the nearby town of Javier (just another way of spelling Xavier). He has been one of two official patron saints of the province since 1622. The other is San Fermin, whose feast day is connected with that thing they do with the bulls every July.

Francisco Javier (pronounced hah-vee-AIR) was one of the first disciples of St. Ignatius Loyola and the priestly order he founded, the Society of Jesus -- the Jesuits. Francis traveled around Japan, China, and India baptizing and converting thousands.

This year, the newly elected leftists decided to break with tradition and not host a mass honoring the saint in his birthplace, some 40 minutes away by car. That sort of thing should be the job of the church, not the government, said the new president of the provincial partliament. Instead, the secularists stayed home, campaigned for another upcoming election, and gave a medal to a local historian. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving in Spain: trout on the menu

Grandpa Fred Breiner, with ever-present cigar. Richie, Danny, Mickey, and cousin Bobby Marcus. Maybe 1949.
PAMPLONA, Spain -- I do miss Thanksgiving. It is the best American holiday with the best memories for me. This year is the ninth that I have been outside the country. Again it is a work day -- department meeting, then coffee with a colleague who specializes in German philosophy and collects news clips about Bridget for me. Then grading 18 final projects from 75 students. Cindy has plans for trout for dinner.

Thanksgiving 1961, Bart Starr and Packers vs. Lions, Press-Gazette Archive
On Thanksgiving Day in 2006 I gave a lecture at the public university in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and walked out into the tropical heat and humidity, feeling really homesick. Along one of the main roads, the lame Santa Claus displays set against an inappropriate cultural background poisoned any warm feelings of nostalgia. Depressing, really, especially there, where the poor are really poor and the middle class lives in walled communities.

What I really needed to pick me up was a dose of the Lions vs. the Packers. For some reason, no one in Santa Cruz cares about that game. No TV, no John Madden, no family. If I had been at the Kuhns' in Columbus, we would have gone over to the neighbors' yard and played some pickup hoops in the driveway. Or in Cleveland, maybe a Turkey Trot or some hoops.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Spanish soccer game is 6 times bigger than the Super Bowl

Luis Suarez scores for Barcelona in Saturday night's clásico. ESPN photo
Cindy and I went to the closest neighborhood bar on Saturday night to do what most of the rest of Spain was doing, which was watching the two best soccer teams in Spain duke it out.

Barcelona whomped Real Madrid, 4-0, in what was supposed to be a close match, but that was almost beside the point.

Ronaldo and Real Madrid had a rough night. Getty Images via BBC
Barcelona and Real Madrid were playing a regular season game--they play twice, home and home--so it was not a playoff or final or anything special.

But their matches--which have so much history and drama that they are referred to as clásicos--regularly draw hundreds of millions of TV viewers.

First, the teams are rich and successful. Forbes ranks Barcelona and Real Madrid as the two most valuable sports franchises in the world. The BBC last year recounted the history of the 200-plus clásicos, and gave a sense of why they deserve the designation as classics. Similar to the Patriots-Giants or Red Sox-Yankees rivalries, but bigger.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Columbus Day story: how he brought me to Spain

Departure of Columbus from Palos, Spain, 1492, Emanuel Leutze. Photo: Wikipedia, public domain.
The painting's owner was seeking to have the image placed on the $1 bill.
PAMPLONA, Spain -- For me it started in March of 1987 when a bunch of public officials from Columbus, Ohio (named for the explorer) headed off to Europe on one of those trips that newspapers always attack as wasteful junkets. 

First stop, Genoa, Italy, 1987.
I got to go along, and the trip turned out to be a life-changer. I was 35 and had been working at The (Columbus) Dispatch for 10 years. At that time I was leading a team of five reporters working on investigative and long-term projects. I enjoyed my work, but there was this other thing that I had always wanted to do -- live and work abroad.

I got the assignment to go to Europe partly because I had a passport (a strange story in itself) and could be ready to leave in just a few days. 

The purpose of the traveling party of about 20 was to organize the city's participation in the worldwide recognition five years hence of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage to America. (He made landfall in the Bahamas on Oct. 12, 1492, a date commemorated today in the U.S., Spain, and Latin America with three-day weekends, parades, and demonstrations against racism and colonialism.)

It was going to be a big deal, the quincentennial of 1992. The delegation included state and local elected officials, as well as Ohio State University administrators and professors of history, Italian, and Spanish, who also acted as translators.