Children Are Singing

IMG_0453Here’s the thing:  a choir of children still sings every morning at eleven inside the basilica where Franco is buried. Spain’s former dictator is buried inside inside a cathedral built into a mountain by thousands of Republican prisoners after the war.  A five hundred foot cross tops this monument.

During a summer study abroad course I was teaching, Spain’s Civil War in Literature and Film, I visited the Franco’s tomb, the Valley of the Fallen, for the first time.  I stood on his tomb, six to eight of my students around me.  The guide, a Spaniard and close friend of mine, spoke of forgiveness and closing this chapter from the past.  I spoke of remembering the past in order to never forget.  A priest who was not part of our group listened.  Then the guide told us that a choir of children – there is a choir arts boarding school for boys located in an underground monastery below the basilica itself – sings daily as part of the worship service.  Chills shot down my spine.

Without touching on the history of the ideological shaping of youth through intense educational propaganda under Franco’s totalitarian regime, the lives of youth were forever terminated or changed by war and this damage continued as Franco waged a war against his own civilians after 1939.   The historian, Helen Graham, makes this point well.  The displacement and death of minors was massive during Franco’s thirty-six year rule especially in the decade following Spain’s Civil War.  Graham, estimates that 120,000 civilians were executed after 1939.  According to Graham up to a million men, women and children spent time in a jail, reformatory or concentration camp.  Mass imprisonment and executions included minors (see the film, Thirteen Roses); the children and teens that survived lived in orphanages or in traumatized, fragmented families.

Juveniles had already suffered the war itself:  Verónica Sierra Blass estimates that 400,000 children were killed during the conflict, and that by 193,  50,000 minors lived in refugee centers across the country and 30,000 children had been sent as refugees to foreign countries.

So here’s the thing:  children’s voices should not tell the official story.  Children should not protagonize a sanitized version of history in which the winners still tell the past.

Remarkably, boy and girl characters do populate quite a few movies about Spain’s Civil War and its aftermath.  Many of these films belong to the horror genre.  Why?

Silence about what was really happening or what happened marked the dictatorship; silence persisted under the 1977 Law of Amnesty which barred prosecution of war criminals.  Spaniards call this amnesty the pact of forgetting.  I would not call it amnesia, precisely, but Spanish society did not break the silence until around 2000.

In roughly twelve films juvenile protagonists elude silence to tell the truth of their own story.  This humane vision of the past events is possible because children do not cling to ideological divisions.  They present the truth of their experience without ideological bias.  Yes, these movies are fictional accounts of the past but they are just as worthy of consideration as the official story in my view.

The 2007 Law of Historical Memory bans political exaltation of any kind at the Valley of the Fallen; instead, the law calls for exaltation of peace.  But the children are still singing.  Is this not a daily retelling of the official story?

Music and Motorcross

What do the singer, Sade, and motorcross have in common? In a single night I criss-crossed the city of Barcelona on the back of a motorcycle to attend a motorcross event and then to see Sade live in concert at an uptown club named Studio 54 (or something like that).

When I returned to Spain to study abroad in 1986 I was still in contact with my homestay family from 1983. My homestay brother, having finished his compulsory military service, put me in contact with an army buddy whose name I cannot remember. I do remember the many kindnesses I received from him and his family during my six-month stay in Barcelona.

This kind friend of a friend picked me up on his motorcycle every Friday and Saturday night to go out with his girfriend and their friends. The evening would start with a pub crawl and progress to upscale discos and high-end clubs where we danced and sipped cocktails. Not once did I ever pay for a drink (I never paid a cover charge either because I was a young blonde American, still a rarity in 1986 Spain). A smoker back then, I probably supplied the group with Marlboro Red cigarettes. Still, their generosity towards me was unforgettable.

I learned the Catalonian language from this group of friends because they rarely spoke Castilian or English to me. Of course I would reply back in Castilian. But eventually I learned some key phrases in Catalonian which served me well. One occasion comes to mind: returning from the beach (Sitges) on the train I asked an incredibly handsome man my age whose uniform set off his green eyes, “Tens foc?” Like a gentleman, he lit my cigarette.

Recorded, techno-pop music played in the discotheques like it does today. The Sade concert in a crowded club was exceptional. More exceptional still was standing against the stage twelve feet from Elton John during a stadium performance. Spaniards went out to stadium rock concerts but rarely arrived on time. A longtime concert goer in the U.S., I arrived early. This is why I saw Supertramp from the first row too.

Rather than take me home, my motorcycle escort would drop me in the Plaça de Catalunya at seven or eight in the morning. The best falafel I have ever eaten was served from a small stand on the sidewalk. I would eat my falafel then jump on the metro to the Sagrada Familia, the neighborhood where I experienced my homestay from hell.

Youth Shift

In my teaching Spanish youth is the lense through which we make predictions about Spain’s future. Not so long ago, our vision of Spain’s future was not optimistic. Profound apathy was associated with young people in Spain. These associations were made evident in short stories we read like Puértolas’ “Billetes” or Rivas’ “¿Qué me quieres, amor?” Clara Sánchez’ novel, “Las últimas noticias del paraíso” summed up the slacker mentality of a generation.

Faced with economic crises on many fronts, Spaniards in general, but particularly youth, have mobilized. The 15M movement, an occupy demonstration in response to the coming elections in May 2011, sparked a global occupation on the fifteenth of October in 2011, rebranded “Occupy Wallstreet” by disenfranchised Americans.

Fed up with government cuts, and the corruption that led to the crisis in the first place, Spaniards (young and old as retirees defended their pensions) took the streets occupying plazas across Spain for weeks in May of 2011. Madrid’s Puerta del Sol occupation boasted of childcare, tech support and other vital services. They repeated the effort in October.

In 2013 Spaniards continue to mobilize to thwart cuts to education and other social programs. Hence the tone has shifted. Having emerged from the long shadow cast by Franco’s dictatorship, today’s generation acts on principles of justice without fear. Silence around the horrors of the Civil War and its aftermath has been broken the effect of which is that Spanish people are raising their voices in response to current economic challenges.

This shift towards activism is heartening, to be sure. But let me offer one word of caution: talented young Spaniards are leaving Spain in droves to find work. Although 40% of young citizens graduate with advanced degrees, 300,000 have left Spain since June of 2012. Highly educated doctors, nurses, scientists and engineers make up this group. This brain drain, a result of Spain’s 50% rate of unemployment for young workers, curbs my optimism for Spain’s future. Activism is an encouraging sign; an exodus of Spain’s best is not. Emigration abroad represents a massive displacement of people that Spanish society cannot afford.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPintxos or pinchos is not just another word for Spanish tapas.  Pintxos, which is the Basque spelling, have a history.

San Sebastián, or Donostia, Spain is known for the best pintxos in the world.  All bars serve them but some more artfully (and courteously) than others.  I had traveled to San Sebastián in 2007 and sampled the food in La Cuchara de San Telmo and Casa Gandarias.  Excellent.  This time another bar caught my eye on the edge of Old Town (or was it just that my daughter needed to use the bathroom so we ducked in?), Nagusia Lau:  stacks of savory food in wonderful combinations atop baguette crostinis.  We ordered drinks, asked for plates, and filled them by serving ourselves (at all pintxos bars the bartender takes note of what’s on your plate before you consume so that s/he can charge you later).  The bill came to 27 euros!  This was way too expensive for pintxos.

In central and southern Spain a pincho is defined as that free appetizer you ask for when you order a drink at a bar, “Dáme un pincho”  (imagine my shock then at arriving in San Sebastían to pay 27 euros for drinks and pinchos).  If you actually order an appetizer, which is more plentiful and therefore comes on a bigger plate, this is called a “ración.”  In the Basque country, which is known for its innovative cuisine (including beyond the bar), pintxos have become a tourist phenomenon.  A pintxo might be grilled octopus, skewered lamb or fried squid.  You do not sit down and order.  You go to the bar and make yourself heard over the din.  You do this in at least five bars in a row between the hours of 7pm and 11pm.  In San Sebastián, Old Town is best for bar hopping because its location next to the port means that you are eating seafood caught that day.

IMG_1366I traveled to Bilbao in 1986 before it was discovered by Guggenheim.  We went to Old Town to bar hop.  We knew it was dangerous to be in Bilbao at night; this was a rough, working man’s city known for its industrial economic might.  I would not have survived Bilbao’s Old Town without the male friends who accompanied and protected me.  But what I remember best are the pintxos which were quite simply meat and seafood grilled on a skewer, what the fancy pintxo bars now call “brochetas.”  Pintxos were born on a grill, not a menu.

In San Sebastián, we returned to the first bar I encountered (where we paid 27 euros for appetizers and drinks) and quickly left because the service was insolent.  If the food was tasty but expensive did I really need to tolerate a grouchy bartender?  Trip Advisor’s writers confirmed my suspicion:  this bar is located at the entrance to Old Town luring in naive tourists, treating them badly, then overcharging them.

IMG_1431We had already visited the familiar haunts, La Cuchara de San Telmo which is teaming with customers, and Casa Gandarias, which is also overcrowded.  We went back to a family-owned bar with friendly service and traditional pintxos, La Cepa.  Finally we stopped in a bar where I had noticed really big crowds.  We waited ninety minutes for the kitchen to open but it was worth it.  Rations of octopus, patatas bravas, croquetas and pintxos of smoked salmon and stuffed roasted red pepper were delicious.  Unfortunately I cannot remember the restaurant’s name but it is on the corner of 31 de Agosto Kalea as you descend to visit La Cuchara de San Telmo but before you reach Casa Gandarias.

Homestay From Hell

I have not written a word about my study abroad experience in Barcelona in 1986.  The homestay from hell is the primary reason I do not have fond memories.

Gloria, my homestay mother, was cheap and stingy.  We left the table hungry and on Sunday nights she pureed the week’s leftovers, bones too, and heated the soup for our dinner.  Randy, my American housemate, never said a word.  I gagged and refused to eat it.

When she entertained, Gloria told us to stay in our rooms.  Our bedrooms were not heated and it was winter.  She served lavish Italian meals for her friends and family in the heated living room.

I was nineteen years old and living in the largest city of my life.  I had chosen Barcelona; in fact I had fought for it.  My college adviser tried to dissuade me.  I would not learn Spanish because everyone spoke Catalonian.  He could not have foretold my homestay nightmare.

We knew when Gloria received the monthly pension to house and feed us because she would return home with a tacky garment two sizes too small for her.  A putty-colored leather jacket she bought comes to mind.

Like the picaresque characters in my favorite literature class at the University of Barcelona, I lived by my wits to feed myself and to escape Gloria’s disapproval.  Unlike my picaresque counterparts I had a weekly allowance; I learned to stretch it in order to spend as much time away from my homestay as possible.

After two months (I was there for a semester) I met a group of international students who shared an apartment in El Raval.  These English, Catalonian, and South American friends invited me into their kitchen where we prepared simple meals to eat on the rooftop terrace.  Later we would dance on the terrace or head to another student apartment to party.  On weekends we went to Sitges, a nearby beach resort.  I was living the movie, L’Auberge  Espagnole, before it was made.

I have always related to the protagonist of Laforet’s novel, Andrea.  She moved from Las Canarias to Barcelona in postwar Spain to study at the university.  She was nineteen.  Andrea lived with relatives who were too absorbed with their own problems to give her the support she needed.  It is a dark, almost Gothic, tale of loneliness.  Andrea gets by; she is another picaresque character with whom I identified.

In my present homestay I tell Maria del Valle about Gloria La Bruja from 1986 Barcelona. Maria del Valle asks the simple question, Why did you not change homestays?  Why did you not speak up?  I do remember writing a scathing evaluation of the homestay.  I do not know why I did not speak up sooner.

Dali, Almodovar, and Me

imageMy Spain diary from thirty years ago recounts a group excursion to a Dali retrospective in Madrid.  Understand the context: although I attended prep school in Colorado Springs, I lived in Divide forty five minutes west up Ute Pass. For my homestay in 1983, I was placed in Herencia, La Mancha, a small town of 7,000.  We barely saw Madrid – the largest city I had every visited up until that point in my life – before being placed in our homestays.  Nothing prepared me for Dali’s canvases especially their phallic misogyny. One painting has endured in my memory:  The Great Masturbator.  Suffice it to say that I do not like Dali’s work.

However, I do recognize his genius; the AHA staff (the incredible on-site team who organizes the Segovia program), after fifty calls to Madrid and copious documentation to prove our university status, secured entrance to a special Dali retrospective at the Museo de La Reina Sofia.  We have planned it as a surprise for the students.  In my experience, students love Dali’s work because it bends our very notion of reality.

Thirty years later I visit this exhibition and I experience the same revulsion I feel about Almodovar’s films (with the exception of “Las mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios” and “Volver”). Almodovar who thinks he understands women really does not.  He represents them in sordid or silly (or both) roles and contexts. This is not a moral point of mine, it is sociopolitical. Almodovar left La Mancha and went to Madrid in the 1960s.  He made his first films with a handheld Super-8 videocamera (some of the titles are too obscene to publish here). Later he was a central agent of La Movida, an artistic-party culture whose highly permissive art forms (and lifestyles) rejected the socially repressive dictatorship before.

Importantly, Almodovar’s films show the exit from Spain’s past.  But they go too far by making grotesque human sexuality. One film with this shock -aesthetic would have been enough, not twenty.

In 1983 Dali’s exhibit opened my eyes to alternative perspectives.  It also got me thinking about the artistic representation of women by men.

Bars and Cigarette Smoking


Shocking:  people in Spain no longer smoke inside bars.  They step outside to smoke, or sit at an outside table, and many fewer people smoke overall.

With the exception of 2007, my memory is a smoke so blue and thick in every bar that you could not see across the room.  It was literally like entering a toxic cloud.

As a study abroad student in Spain I smoked too.  In Herencia I smoked Lucky Strikes and Ducados, the black tobacco my homestay father used.  In Barcelona I smoked Marlboro Reds and occasionally Galoix or Dunhills, European brands.  It is hard to believe now but during one evening out it was was easy to go through four packs of cigarettes.  This is because it was customary to offer everyone in your group a smoke if you wished to have a cigarette.  I had quit smoking before my semester in Barcelona.  Faced with multiple cigarette offers on an hourly basis – this was the custom, really – and surviving the dense secondary smoke of every bar or cafe, I quickly returned to smoking cigarettes.

For the most part, bars in Spain are for everyone:  families including young children, the elderly, students, and professionals.  Some bars, called cafeterias, open for breakfast and are still open at midnight.  All bars serve food with beverages and it is not mandatory to drink alcohol.  Coffee and soft drinks are equally consumed in bars. After dinner, which is served as late as 11pm, Spanish youth go out in large groups.  Different bars open for this crowd and generally food is not served.  Later, at 2am, the discos open for dancing. They close at 7 or 8am.

In Spain cigarettes can only be purchased at Estancos.  The goverment regulates the number of Estancos in a community and the distance between them. Currently a pack of cigarettes costs around 4 euros; eighty per cent of the earnings is tax.  Estancos provide bars with cigarette machines; the cigarettes cost fifteen cents more .  You have to be eighteen years old to buy tobacco.

Spain has raised the price on cigarettes and increased its antismoking campaign to curb tobacco use.  Prpaganda on the cigarette packets themselves includes “Fumar mata” and photos of a cancerous throat or lung.

Thirty percent of  the population smokes; over the age of 16 more men than women smoke.  Between the ages of fourteen and eighteen more young women than men smoke:  thirty five percent of this age group comprises young female smokers.

Before my last visit in 2007, Spain had passed legislation prohibiting smoking in bars and other eateries but no one took it seriously.  Hand-made signs that read “No smoking” were ignored.  The Anti-Tobacco Law, which took effect in 2011,  clarified the earlier ban on smoking in bars by prohibiting all smoking in closed, shared spaces.  Some bar owners protested the law believing that it would put an end to their livelihood.  This has not been the case.

Today Spain’s bars are blissfully smoke-free.  Shocking.

The Hive

I do not mean to be unkind when I compare the Spanish community to a hive of buzzing activity.  In fact, the relative social isolation of the U.S. represents a major reverse cultural shock for me.  As one of my students put it upon her return to California, “Where are all the people?”  Stuck in suburbia, outside her house the sidewalks were empty.

Spaniards gather together in almost every social context.  During the evening stroll they leave their homes to socialize in the street, young and old.  They live in high density, compact neighborhoods with shops, pedestrians, and traffic located below their spacious apartments.  Most buildings have an inner atrium and through the windows arrive all conceivable human noises and smells.  But it feels safe and cozy.

My only complaint is the noise level outside the apartment:  radio, motorcycles, telephones, children’s shouts, trash collectors, other trucks, demonstrations, and loud arguments all compete for my attention.

For a long time I have thought about the comparison of the hive to Spanish society in two postwar films, “The Hive,” based on the novel by Cela, and “Spirit of the Beehive,” a cult classic made by Erice.  In both the implication is obedience and order under dictatorship, the postwar experience for Spaniards who survived the conflict and the repression afterwards.  It bothers me that the idea of the Spanish community that I relate to the hive is depicted as a society of drones in these films.  Or that when the social order is upset chaos rules.

I asked my students to write a short essay on this topic: I would (not) like to live in Spain.  I gave the example that I would not like to live in Spain because of the noise. I did not say that sometimes the constant buzz exhausts me.  In my homestay we call my bedroom, “el convento.”  Tucked away at the end of a long hallway, far from the TV and kitchen, it is private and peaceful.  There is one exception.  To gain this level of quiet, I chose a room with a window to the inner atrium instead of the street.  I hear telephone conversations, home repairs, meal preparations, and toilets flushing.  I pretend it is white noise and go to sleep.

The Grocery Store

imageThis is my fifth trip to Spain and the first trip that I notice the total takeover of the supermarket:  Mercadona, Dia, and Hipercor (the “hyper” in this one-stop-shopping megastore  suggests a new lifestyle for Spaniards) which is a subsidiary of El Corte Ingles, a department store founded in 1940 by Ramon Areces. This corporation also operates two grocery stores, Supercor and Opencor, as well as home improvement center, Bricor, and fashion chain, Sfera.

Why am I writing about the grocery store? Because a way of life, food shopping, is disappearing in Spain.  As late as 2007 women visited as many as ten stores per day (in high heels, of course) to buy the fresh ingredients for that day’s big meal.  Small merchants specialized in foods as the names of these old fashioned stores denote:  la lecheria, la queseria, la panaderia, la pescaderia, la pasteleria, la carniceria, and la  salchicheria, to name just a few. Fruits and vegetables were purchased at “la fruteria” or the weekly market.

I went to Segovia’s Thursday market in the plaza to buy pastries for my students.  I could not resist the olive stand which offered at least twenty different kinds.  Two senoras were ahead of me.  Not thinking that I could understand their language they complained to each other that I had not taken a number.  A third senora arrived, a neighbor friend, and she was quickly dispatched to get a number before me. Their cackling made me more obstinate  than ever.  Why should I take a number?  Surely the olive seller is bright enough to know that I am third in line.  Then I saw my chance.  Observing that the neighbor friend had left the scene I took a number as the first two senoras were finishing their purchases.  Right away her number was called but the third senora was nowhere in sight.  I stepped up with the next number in line and smiled victoriously to the senoras.  Next week I hope to repeat this competition.

Humor aside, the shift to supermarket shopping has changed the way Spaniards procure, store and prepare food.  Refrigerators are full-sized and the practice of chilling foods like milk, eggs or meats on a shelf outside the kitchen window is out of date. Freezers, previously tiny or unavailable, are now essential. Women food shop once or twice a week because they work.  Some have families.  Once more I am conflicted about this change in Spanish society.  I do not wish daily food shopping on today’s women (I despise grocery shopping myself).  Nor do I wish on the older generation the toil and trouble of walking blocks and blocks every morning to food shop. Today their bulbous ankles tell the story of this lifestyle from the past.

However I am sorry for the local grocers and their families who lost their livelihood.  It is not that I am not for progress.  It is that I have my doubts about the progress of a few megachain grocery stores feeding Spanish homes.

Los tacones (High Heels)


It is a relief to see women my own age out on the street in tennis shoes and yoga pants and not just to go to the gym.  In Spain, and in Europe, women walk everywhere:  to work, to school, to take the kids to the park, to meet with friends, to stroll, to shop.  Women pause to windowshop; they discuss and plan the next shoe purchase.

Above 70 years of age the women in Segovia leave the house perfectly coiffed with faces, eyes and lips painted.  High heels and hosiery are a must for this fashion set.  It has been cold in Segovia; during the evening paseo the town’s elderly ladies step out in tweed suits and  full-length fur coats.

Women over seventy have the good sense to wear block heels.  The shoes are still two or three inches high but with a supportive heel.  Our first Sunday afternoon in Segovia I observed an otherwise elegant teenager tottering on six or seven inch heels, staggering and halting like a female Frankenstein, on cobblestone.  My homestay hostess tells me that working on her feet in high heels all her life explains her two recent foot surgeries.  Now she only wears high heels for special occasions.

Spanish-made shoes are among the best in the world but until recently they were made for designers outside of Spain.  The New York Times reports an industry shift in 2007.  Shoemakers on the peninsula began designing and producing high-end shoes for the Spanish consumer.  Designers like Pedro Garcia, Chie Mahara, Manolo Blahnik, Pura Lopez and Ursula Mascaro now make thousands of unique shoes for women world-wide.

I have my eyes on a pair of sandals in the shoe store below my apartment.  They are comfort high heels at half the price of the same pair in the U.S.  They are a French maker, Mephisto, but Spain manufactures comfort shoes too like Pikolinos or Helle (which now has a branch called Vita Unica).  Visit to see the Fall preview.