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.

Stops included Genoa, Italy, Columbus's birthplace (documented but disputed), which was holding an Expo '92 world exposition, and two stops in Spain -- Seville, which was hosting a world's fair, also called Expo '92 (Seville was the adminstrative center of Spain's New World colonies), and Barcelona, which was hosting the 1992 Olympics. All had strong historical connections with the explorer and statues to boot.

Genoa's harbor area, 1987

Architect Renzo Piano redesigned Geno's old port for 1992 with an aquarium, a giant sculpture, and restored warehouses. Photo by Federico.
The ex-pat dream

Seville transformed a river island for Expo '92. Photo:
I was a late addition to the delegation so I flew over with the city's representative.  We arrived in Milan. I knew no Italian but I had a Berlitz phrase book. First challenge was to get a bus to Genoa (Genova). I found the bus terminal and asked a guy, "Genova, quando" (when)?  He replied with a word that had survived 2,000 years but that I had not heard since second-year high school Latin,  "subito." Which then and now meant, right away, immediately. Recognizing that word gave me a thrill akin to what a historian might feel gripping a Roman short sword or stroking an exquisite vase.

Columbus statue, Barcelona.
It was the first of many language thrills. Europe had always represented to me high art and culture. My literary heroes had been the American and British expats who lived abroad and could speak the local languages -- Henry James, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Samuel Beckett, and so on. That was my dream -- to live and work in a foreign country and speak the local language.

On the bus ride to Genoa, a fellow passenger with his wife and kids seemed friendly, so I asked if he spoke French. He did, and we talked for much of the trip. He was an accountant returning from a two-week trip to islands in the South Pacific.

That was my next big thrill, using French. It turned out that there were a lot of people I would meet over the next few days who spoke French, so I was in heaven. I felt as though I was living that adolescent dream of the expat on the loose in Europe.

The promise of Italian

One stop was at one of the principal daily newspapers, Il Secolo XIX ("the 19th century"), where we met with the publisher, who said he wanted to have an exchange of journalists in 1992, "but the American must speak Italian," he said. It sounded like an invitation. I decided then and there, I am going to qualify for that job.
My friend, Mario Bottaro. Journalist, historian, entrepreneur.

The Rambla, Barcelona, 1987
(It was also there that I met Mario Bottaro, the managing editor of the newspaper, and we became friends. He hosted me on several visits to Genoa, helped me cover the intrigues of Genoese and Italian politics, and gave me two of the books he wrote on 19th and 20th century history of Genoa; I helped him with ideas for the business newspaper he eventually launched, Liguria Business Journal.)

The Columbus delegation also went on tours of Genoa's decaying old port that they wanted to revive for 1992, the old palaces from the city's glory days, and picturesque Portofino just to the south. It was all so rich, so beautiful, so enchanting. I was in love with the smell of espresso and the musical sound of Italian. The gorgeous palaces. The stylishly dressed men and women.

Then on to Barcelona. On Sunday morning I strolled up the Rambla with its stands selling flowers and songbirds. We went to see the replica of an ancient sailing ship in the harbor because there were plans to build a replica of Columbus's flagship, the Santa Maria, and float it in the Scioto River opposite Columbus city hall.

Seville, Plaza de America, 1987
In Seville, we had a magical dinner at the Alcazar, the palace of the Muslim rulers of southern Spain, and toured the amazing site of the 1929 world exhibition. Orange trees were everywhere, and their blossoms filled the air with intoxicating perfume, a scent that imprinted itself on my brain.

Back to school at Ohio State

I had caught the bug. So when we returned to Columbus, I immediately began seeing how I could study Italian at Ohio State. Turns out there was an intensive course that summer -- the equivalent of a year of study packed into three hours of classes each day for 10 weeks. I got permission to rearrange my work schedule, and then began my immersion in the language.

I couldn't get enough of it. I later took two more courses in writing and literature and continued with hours of practice at home, watching videos borrowed from the public library.
The Alcazar, Seville, 1991

(At The Dispatch, Editor Luke Feck and Metro Editor Gary Kiefer gave me lots of support in this effort. Many Ohio State people encouraged me and helped me: Daniela Cavallaro, Charles Klopp, Luciano Farina, Steve Summerhill, Francille Firebaugh, and Chris Zacher, among others.)

As it happened, I changed jobs and left the Dispatch to become editor of Business First, so the exchange program with Genoa's daily was not going to happen. But in three years I was fluent enough to go back to Genoa and interview people about 1992 events, and business opportunities.
The Santa Maria replica came to Columbus in 1991 and has been dismantled. 

(And at Business First, my boss, Publisher Carole Williams, also encouraged me in these language studies.)

Columbus was now well along in planning its 1992 commemoration. The city could not get international approval to hold a world's fair that year -- there are commissions that decide that sort of thing -- so it got an international flower show, Ameriflora 92, which transformed one of the city's parks.  

On to Spanish

As it turned out, fluency in Italian was not very useful in Columbus after 1992 -- no more visiting delegations -- so I decided that to realize my dream of living and working abroad, I needed to learn a more practical language -- Spanish. About 400 million people speak it in a couple of dozen countries. Better odds than Italian.

I took two courses at night at Columbus State Community College, mainly because it was walking distance from my office, and decided I would learn faster and better on my own.Students weren't prepared, bullied the teacher into speaking English, and generally wasted my time. For me, the learning method at Ohio State, with intense back and forth between teachers and students, was much richer. But my schedule didn't allow me to take classes there.

So I read newspapers and, eventually, short stories; I recorded television news in Spanish; I subscribed to a radio news service with audio cassettes and a transcription in Spanish; and I invited native speakers to coffee or lunch. 
In Columbus, a neighbor of Cuban descent, Carmen Mendoza, met me for coffee and helped me with conversation. By the time I got to Baltimore in 1995, I was more advanced and worked with Maria Mazzoni, who had a translation service. (How did you learn Spanish? One word at a time.)

Bolivia, Mexico and now Spain

In Baltimore, where I was publisher of the Business Journal, I worked on my Spanish until it was good enough that the people at the International Center for Journalists thought I could train journalists in Latin America without a translator. In 2006 I retired to take a fellowship to work with journalists in Bolivia. Then the same organization sent me to Mexico to launch a digital journalism training center at the University of Guadalajara. (The people at ICFJ at that time who picked me for the program and supported my work in Latin America included Luis Botello, Lanaea Featherstone, Patrick Butler, Joyce Barnathan, Elisa Tinsley and Vjollca Shtylla.

Through various professional connections over the years, I received an invitation to teach at the University of Navarra, here in Pamplona. I had met Prof. Ramon Salaverria through my work in Guadalajara, and later I met another professor, Jose Luis Orihuela, through Twitter and kept up a correspondence.

So it has been a long journey, all started by Christopher Columbus. And I went in the opposite direction, from the New World to discover the Old. On Columbus Day weekend, I am reminded of all the people who have helped me along the way, not all of whom were mentioned here. There is no way I could have gotten here without the support of my wife, Cindy, who gave up a lot, including a great house, so we could live this nomadic life. Our family in Atlanta and Cleveland have welcomed us whenever we come in from the road.

We never accomplish anything by ourselves. We need a crew around us to help us get where we want to go.


Inspirational kickoff to the academic year  
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    
Basque language has mysterious origins   
Andalusia has different flavor from rest of Spain    
Tapas or pinchos are our favorite foods in Spain  
Pilgrims still come to honor St. James in Santiago de Compostela


  1. Congratulations to you for working hard to fulfill your dream!

  2. Great article, Jimmy. I never knew the whole story of your language journey. You deserve all the rewards of your hard work: the smell of espresso and orange blossoms.

  3. There is always so much more behind a story. Getting the broader view from years on makes me appreciate what has driven you to such interesting places.