Family Pages


Introductory Remarks

Hazel took a group of students from Middlesex Community College to Spain in January, 2001. It was a two-week trip, and I was lucky enough to accompany them on one of those weeks [9-17 January 2001 -- a Tuesday through the next Wednesday]. I was a sort of companion to Hazel, and sort of a free extra advisor to the kids. I wrote a longish letter to my mother about the visit. I decided to format it in html so people who cared could read about the trip. I have also added a few updated editorial comments. These are set off in square brackets[]. The normal parenthetical expressions which abound are just a peculiarity of my writing style. I seem to have problems staying on the point. Fortunately, I'm not being graded on this.

to top

Spain Trip Narrative

27 January 2001
Dear Mom,

Happy Mozart's Birthday! The radio station that was on this morning was having an all Mozart bash, or something like that. When I went off around noon, people turned it off. So now I'm sitting at the computer listening to Shakuhachi music which is being played by the computer itself. I think it's supposed to put me in a meditative frame of mind or something.

As you can probably guess from the fact that you got a letter posted in the U.S., I'm back from Spain. Actually so is Hazel. I got back a bit over a week ago, and Hazel came back on Monday night. I think we're still both feeling some jet lag, although I probably don't have much excuse for it anymore. I got to spend my last weekend doing laundry, dishes and lots and lots of snow shoveling. We had about 6 inches on Saturday night (a week ago), so I walked to church in the morning (there were almost as many folks in the choir as in the congregation - the choir seems especially faithful), and then came home and shoveled for a few hours. At least this time the alleged male adults in my household had an excuse for not helping: both were out of town. Zachary had gone to Poughkeepsie for the weekend to visit a buddy [Adam], and Justin was in Colorado with the Freelance Bishops.

Hazel and I had a pretty good time in Spain. As nearly as I can tell, things went down hill a bit after I left, but I think it was mostly that they were getting tired and that after a while one gaudy cathedral built using money and gold stolen from the people in South America starts to look like all the others. I must say, I'm a bit off Catholics at the moment. I'll try to get over it in the interest of ecumenism.

I left Boston on Tuesday evening (Jan 9th) and arrived in Paris around noon or so on Wednesday (their time). The plane switch went ok, and I got into Madrid in the early afternoon. I thought some about trying to take the subway into town, but realized, after I found the subway and looked at the map of the system, that negotiating it would be quite an ordeal, so I got a taxi instead. It was a good thing. I would probably never have been able to find our hotel even if I had managed to get to the proper subway stop. Actually the taxi driver had problems as well. He spent quite a lot of time thumbing through a very thick book as he drove along. Eventually he did find the proper place and dropped me off. The total cost, including a generous tip was less than $20, so that didn't seem too bad.

Hazel had told the folks at the hotel (Hostel Roma) to look for me. When I showed up, they gave me a note from Hazel and the key to our room. When she left, she wasn't sure where I'd be staying, but the folks had arranged things so that I could stay in her room with her and she called me from Madrid on Tuesday morning to tell me that. Anyway, I went up to our room and decided to take a nap. I got to the hotel around 3 p.m. and expected Hazel to show up shortly after 4, so I figured I had just enough time. It turns out that she was considerably later than that, so I had time to read through the materials I was supposed to have read before I went, things about Spanish literature and architecture and a few phrases.

Hazel showed up around 6 or so. We didn't have dinner until around 8, so we mostly hung out. Perhaps we took a short stroll around. Our hotel was situated at the Plaza of the barefoot nuns. There was a convent across the plaza from us where someone set up a Carmelite convent for daughters of nobles. They take lesser types now. I gather that what nuns are still there are cloistered and never see outsiders nor do outsiders see them. They do clang their bell quite a number of times each morning and evening, however, so us outsiders will know they're there. Actually, one can visit parts of the convent, but their schedule and mine didn't overlap, so I never made it. One of the students on the trip did manage to visit.

The program had arranged that we would take our meals at a restaurant just a block away from us, El Zagal. It wasn't exactly gourmet stuff, but was ok. There was a restaurant on one side, and a bar on the other. Most of the evenings we went there, there were a group of working class men who stared at us the whole time we were there. The restaurant staff was nice enough however. Actually, one of them was more than nice, I thought. Most of the nights we were there we had a young man wait on us. Several of the girls in our group developed quite a crush on him, or so it seemed to me, and would spend quite a lot of time with the young man going over every aspect of the menu in detail.

The one who spent the most time spoke fluent Spanish, but she claimed that the food names were mostly strange to her. Her background was Puerto Rican and Dominican (her parents I think, she seemed pretty much like a typical American in her speech and behavior), and she seemed to chat with this young man quite well, but seemed to need lots of explanations regarding the food. Another girl with us was from Columbia originally (4 years here), and she seemed to understand the menu better, but wasn't quite so good at translating it for the rest of us. Her English was quite good, but there seemed to be some gaps in her vocabulary. Anyway, the girls had lots of fun with this guy.

He was quite nice to the rest of us as well, and I always tried to leave him a decent tip (according to the reading Hazel prepared, 10% is considered a handsome tip in Spain and people will become offended if you offer too much more than that. It seemed to me that 10% of peanuts was pretty niggardly, but I tried to comply as best I could). Anyway, the menus had two parts, and the two-course meal, plus bread and dessert was only 1100 pesatas and a bottle of wine added another 600 onto that. That means the whole meal, including wine and "generous" tip, was less than $12 (a pesata is about 0.6 cents)! I'm the only one who had to pay. The students and advisors just signed their names on a list.

We ate there about half the time. The students got a bit tired of it, but since its price was included in the cost of the program, it was like free food. They actually had to pay when they ate in other places. Hazel and I had one dinner on our own, and some of the students ordered themselves pizza once or twice. The first course was something like a salad or soup, and the other course would be some kind of fish or meat, usually served with French Fries (patatas fritas), all soaked in olive oil. The fish weren't cleaned up for us, that is they had lots of bones, and came with heads and tails intact. I decided to avoid fish since I never got comfortable picking out the bones. I got pork cutlets and pigs knuckles and such like.

The salads came with lots of onions and olive oil and had tuna fish sprinkled on top (a problem for the vegetarians in the group - actually virtually all the food was a problem for them: the Spanish don't have a concept of vegetarianism any more than they have a concept of their having raped, robbed and killed millions of people to build and decorate all their cathedrals). One form of salad had potatoes and eggs in it, but no lettuce. The other kind had lettuce instead of the potatoes. Personally, I was happy with the potatoes, but could have done with more lettuce and fewer onions. A little less olive oil wouldn't have been a bad thing either.

A couple of nights they had panache verdure as one of the choices for a first course. That was a big plate of vegetables, mostly peas, but other stuff like bits of asparagus, and the "essential" meat, in this case ham bits. I liked getting that. The desserts were quite nice, flan, which Hazel thought was great, some kind of pudding, which I liked quite well, and sometimes a sort of chocolate "cake" which was quite nice as well.

29 January 2001

Well, I didn't get too far. I had to stop for some reason. Then we had to go off to the PSI annual mid-winter dinner dance (we were trying to be good sports. PSI is in a bit of disarray at the moment and is not high on my list of favorite places to be -- but then it hasn't been for a while. Mostly it's not too bad, but we've had another round of defections recently and morale is poor. Meanwhile, the powers that be are trying to pretend that any bad morale must be the fault of the workers: the managers couldn't possibly have done anything untoward.). Then on Sunday, I had to take Zach back to Umass (allegedly for his last semester). So, as a result, I didn't get too far in my narrative. My guess is that my version of our adventures in Spain will end up being described serially, unless you're willing for me to put off sending this letter for a couple more weeks (which might result in your wondering if we ever did manage to return, or if, perhaps, we were kidnaped by Moorish terrorists that the Inquisition seems to have missed (or maybe just Basques).

Anyway, the general plan for most of our days in Madrid seems to have been to go to the Suffolk University building and have a lecture on some aspect of Spanish culture, geography, etc., and then to go visit something in the afternoon. The first day, the day I missed, they had a "walking tour" of Madrid. Hazel said it was mostly a hectic dash to keep up with the guide. He certainly didn't seem to have a lot of interest in helping people stay together. Since he "guided" us around Salamanca a few days later, I got to see this problem of his first hand (on the other hand, the younger girls thought he was very cute and charming, so didn't seem to mind that he was a bit of a jerk).

We would meet for breakfast, or at least those of us who ate any, around 8 or 8:30 at a corner place called the Vienna Capellano, and then took the subway off to the Suffolk U. place. The Vienna Capellano was a sort of bakery/coffee shop. Lots of folks showed up all during the day for coffee and sweet rolls and such. They also seemed to have quite a line up of sandwiches, so I presume they did a nice lunch trade as well. They had half a dozen tables at which people could sit, although quite a lot of people just gulped down their cafe con leche [coffee with milk] and pan dulce [sweet bread or rolls] at the counter. I also learned to order jugo de naranja [orange juice] after a few days (it took me a while to get straight the pronunciation of Js in Spanish as opposed to French, but fortunately, I didn't try it out on the guy behind the counter before I got it straight. Hazel was getting pretty annoyed with me, however). The students all had chits they could use for breakfast, I had to pay, but as with most things in Spain, the cost wasn't much. The cafe con leche, for example was 140 Ptas, or about $0.85. The other things were comparable, so my whole breakfast was less than $3.00. Quite a change from the $20 breakfasts I had in Sapporo.

For our first lecture about Spain, or the first one I heard, the cute, charming guy told us about Spain's geography and Language, and a bit of history. They were pretty much forced to speak Spanish in all regions under Franco, but once Franco was gone, some of the regions have tried to revert to their "traditional" languages. Spain, it turns out has some three or four languages, and then several dialects on top of that. I think the problem John and Rosemary [my California cousins, parents of Laurel, the opera singer] might have had in Barcelona might have been that those folks refuse, as much as possible, to speak Spanish. They're trying to get their region to revert to Catalán, which is quite a bit different. One of our other lecturers, a Spanish woman, said that when she went to Barcelona she spoke in English. The people were annoyed, but like the French, I guess, would grudgingly respond (albeit in slow English that one might speak when conversing with an idiot). When she tried speaking in Spanish, however, the Cataluñans would just ignore her. There are also dialects of Catalán, called Valencian and Balear, which are spoken in Valencia (along the southeast coast) and the Balearic Islands (in the Mediterranean, east of Spain, including Mallorca, Ibizia, and Menorca).

Also, the folks north of Portugal, in Galicia, now speak Gallego, which is more-or-less like Portugese and, therefore, comprehensible to Spanish speakers (unlike Catalán which is, however a "romance" language, but fairly incomprehensible). Last of all is Euskera, the language spoken by the Basques. It is essentially incomprehensible to everyone who isn't Basque, and, furthermore, is virtually impossible to learn. The Romans never bothered invading the land of the Basques, so their language has nothing in common with the other languages of Spain. Anyway, it sounds like Spain is in the process of Balkanizing itself.

Well, I think I should stop here and continue later. It's bed time, and I'm only on Thursday morning. Perhaps I'll be able to continue my narrative tomorrow night, but I think I'll try to mail off what I have done tomorrow morning just in case I don't make it. Take care.


4 February 2001
Dear Mom,

Well, I'm back for another turn on the computer. I had been hoping to get in a session yesterday, but we had visitors (not a bad thing) and I didn't get the time. Of course, had I not wasted my morning trying to restore our home e-mail program I could have done something else, such as finish up my trip narrative. As it was, Jessica and Ruhiyyih stopped to visit. We had originally hoped to get together with them last weekend so that we could celebrate Jessica's birthday. She had the birthday while we were in Spain, so deferred the celebration until we returned. Unfortunately, Ruhiyyih got mugged and had her wisdom teeth removed, so wasn't in much shape to visit people. She seems to be doing fine now, however, so they thought to come.

They showed up unannounced. The reason for that was that our phone service broke down on Thursday and had yet to be restored. Actually, it still hasn't been restored. If one calls us, one gets the neighbor up the street. Although this woman has been about three houses up the street from us, we've never had much to do with each other. Fortunately, we aren't on hostile terms or anything, so one hopes that the phone company's poor performance isn't straining neighborly relations.

Anyway, Jessica and Ruhiyyih showed up, both feeling somewhat sick (a bad cold I believe). They wanted Hazel to bake Jessica a cake yesterday afternoon, so that's what we did. They also watched a couple of Jane Austin videos ("Emma" and "Persuasion" - I tried to convince them to watch "Sense and Sensibility", rather than "Persuasion", because I'd seen the latter more recently, but to no avail. Our other Jane Austin videos are all too long).

They were going to drive up to Portsmouth, NH today, but didn't feel up to it. Instead, they're having naps upstairs at the moment. I should probably have one as well, but I thought I should get a start, at least, on a letter with a second installment of our Spanish adventures.

My recollection is that in my last letter I had managed to get to Spain, had dinner and breakfast and had managed to get to a lecture on languages of Spain at the Madrid campus of Suffolk U. That got me through Thursday morning. Thursday afternoon we trekked down to the Thyssen Museum and wandered around. Subsequent museum visits involved guided tours, but not this one. Someone from Suffolk took us down, but then she disappeared and we just wandered around looking at stuff ourselves.

The Thyssen is interesting because it has pretty much one of everything dating from about 1200 up to the present. Hazel read somewhere that they had minor works of major artists and major works of minor artists. They did have lots of stuff, however, including a few El Grecos, Tinortettos, Fragonards and the like. They also had a special exhibit at the moment which consisted of 19th century American romantic landscapes. For some reason we started down there. I found quite a few of them pretty interesting [amazing treatment of light].

After the romantic landscapes, we wandered through the rest of the place, mostly, I believe, going backwards in time. It seemed to me that we ought to begin with the 13th century guilt Madonnas and crucifixes on wormy board and proceed through the centuries up to the Andy Warhol stuff, but we didn't. Actually, I think we began around the Impressionists or something and worked back. I got Hazel to let me have a quick rush through the 20th century stuff at the end. Most of it didn't do a whole lot for me, so it was ok that I had to be quick. It would have been nice to have had more time to investigate the paintings and track the changes in style. That would have required being able to wander back and forth, however, and we didn't have time for that, only a couple of hours.

When we were finished with the museum, we wandered back to our hotel, had a bit of a nap, and then regathered at the El Zagal for dinner around 8:30. That is to say, we were trying to learn to do things the Spanish way, put off supper until bed time. Actually, the students continued in the Spanish way by partying late into the night a couple of times. According to one of Hazel's books, the Spanish sleep a couple of hours less per day than other Europeans. They'll hang out in discos until 4 or 5 a.m., and then stagger off to work the next morning. Our students quit the disco the night they went around 2 a.m. and related to us that things were just beginning to get hopping. They didn't go out every night, just a couple of them. It sounds like they had fun. Hazel and I didn't bother to join them. Nor did the other advisor, Pat.

On Friday morning, after another breakfast at the Vienna Capellano, we headed off to Suffolk U. for another lecture. This time we had a woman, who I think was supposed to be the prime coordinator of the program, talk to us about points of view. One of the reasons for traveling to other countries is to learn how people think about things and go about things. In theory we'll eventually come to see that people do things differently, but not necessarily wrongly. One of the things Spanish people think about Americans is that we must be very bad parents because we kick our kids out of the house when they're 18. In Spain, on the other hand, kids tend to live at home until they get married, and sometimes, I gather, even after that. I can relate to that in reverse. A number of my cronies seem appalled that we haven't kicked the kids out of our house [I guess the Spanish, at least, would approve of us].

The Spanish also seem to take great pride in not having a "work ethic". I don't know, it seems to me that those folks at the Vienna Capellano were there all day long and worked hard. Those guys doing all the building renovations around our hotel seemed to start early in the morning and continue until well after we'd be quitting here. I think, perhaps, it's just the rich and privileged folks who don't have much of a work ethic. They can afford to. But, as we know from what we hear coming from Congress and the White House, the rich and privileged seem to think their life style is the norm rather than the exception (like the way to improve public education is to give the folks who can afford to send their kids to Phillips Academy tuition breaks - somehow they don't understand that if one's income is less than a year's tuition at Phillips Academy that a thousand-dollar tax break is less than useless.) and they're the ones who control the newspaper and book trades.

Anyway, in the afternoon, we went to the Reina Sophia Museum (Queen Sophia, the wife of current king, Juan Carlos). The Reina Sophia is housed in what once was a hospital. It specializes in modern art. We had a guide for this tour. She was a bit put out that we were "late". I guess she was expecting us at 2, but the folks from Suffolk didn't get together with us to take us down there until after 2. Anyway, although this woman was a bit rushed, she did take us by the more important Spanish works: those by Miro, Dali, and Picasso, especially Picasso's "El Guernica". She was pretty good at showing us interesting features of the pictures, things we'd probably miss ourselves were we not coached. It seems that in early Dali stuff, one can see quite a few levels. Figures or body parts in the details morph in to other figures or body parts when viewed on a larger scale, etc. We had a nice time.

Then in the evening, the students decided to skip El Zagal and hunt for a vegetarian restaurant. So Hazel and I decided we'd have a nice dinner or our own, although not necessarily vegetarian. Hazel found a reference in a guide book to a place across the street from the opera house that seemed to have singing waiters and waitresses. We went to make reservations and were told we'd have to wait until 9:30 p.m. I thought they were full, but it turns out the place was essentially a dinner theater, and the show didn't start until after 9:30. So we walked up and down the street for quite some time, looking in windows and checking out the people. The place seemed to be hopping. At 9:25 or so we got back to the restaurant and had to wait for another 10 minutes or so before we were ushered down to the restaurant. It was on two levels, and we had a table in the upper part. The place filled up within 10 or 15 minutes and the festivities began.

We were started out with a "complimentary" glass of champagne. Then we ordered. Hazel got a first course of the local cheese. It turned out to be a bunch of slices of cheese arranged around on the plate. One eats everything in Spain, including one's breakfast sweet roll, with a knife and fork. My first course was cuttle fish and pine nuts. It was little slivers of things, presumably one of them was cuttle fish, in a kind of thick brown gravy. It wasn't too bad. For our second course Hazel had pork cutlets or something and I tried stag with mushrooms and watercress. It consisted of extremely thin, circular (ca. 2 inches in diameter) slices of mostly red meat (the edges were brownish, so we knew it was allegedly cooked) sprinkled with slivers of mushroom, garnished with watercress and doused in olive oil. It wasn't too bad, although I probably wouldn't order it again. Oh well, we also had a bottle of wine, so things were fine. I'm drawing a blank at the moment on the dessert, but there was one and it was fine. Now that I think of it, I believe Hazel had flan and decided that it was no better than the one served at El Zagal (although everything else at the Cafe de la Opera was much more elegant).

Periodically, as we ate, various young people would come out and sing arias from opera or zarzuela (Spanish light opera). Sometimes they would sing alone and some times in pairs. There were three women and a man (tenor) and then in the corner was a young pianist who accompanied them and who occasionally played some background music for us during in-between times. The singers were pretty good. The tenor was excellent. About half-way through the evening, they came around and handed out ballots. We were supposed to vote on our favorite singer. Well, the tenor won hands down. I liked several others of them quite well so wrote in their names as well and said things like they were close seconds and such. They finished us off with more complementary champagne and we got out around 11:30 or so and staggered home. It was just a super evening and the total cost was only about $100, half the cost of our fancy dinner last year at the Chateau Frontenac.

On Saturday we had an outing to Salamanca. Salamanca is the site of one of the great medieval universities in Europe. There's still a university there, trying once again to regain the greatness it lost after their learned doctors convinced Ferdinand and Isabella to kick all the smart people out of Spain (the Jews and Moors). I tried to forget about that part so I could enjoy what there was to enjoy. Salamanca is about 100 or so miles north west of Madrid. Our bus trip took us up into mountains around Madrid and then through them (a several mile long tunnel). As a result of the 2-plus hour bus trip, I got to see quite a lot of country side, at least when I wasn't taking a nap to recover from the previous late night. The country is quite rocky. I saw some cattle and sheep, and quite a number of tilled fields, albeit ones in which the plows seem to dig up an unending supply of stones. In between the rocks and pebbles, I saw some things which looked like they might be winter wheat waiting for spring, some fields of wheat stubble waiting for spring planting, and some fields which had unharvested corn, now brown and shriveled. This was one of the few days we didn't have significant rain. Unfortunately, Hazel had to stay behind with one of the students who felt too sick to come along (not from too much partying however).

The old part of Salamanca sits up on a hill, so we started out by walking up the hill. The medieval city had streets too narrow (and perhaps fragile, although it wasn't obvious to me that the Spanish realized that modern living can take its toll on the treasures of the past) to allow for automobiles. The buildings were all made from stone and rose several stories on either side of our route. I suppose people used to live in the buildings, perhaps still do. The downstairs parts, however, seemed full of shops, mostly of the touristy type. We started out looking for a place to have lunch. Eventually we settled on a cafe, and our outgoing Puerto-Rican/Dominican/Bronx/Lowell student straightened us out on the menu, whether we wanted to be straight on it or not.

After lunch, we wandered on down the street to the Plaza Mayor. According to the guy who ran the restaurant, they had bull fights in the Plaza. He had photographs of bull fighting all over his walls. He claimed that the matador in the pictures was his cook (or perhaps used to be). Anyway, it was large and open and surrounded by impressive looking public buildings.

We then walked back the way we had come and stopped to visit several places along the way. One place was a building that was famous for some reason because its outside walls were covered with 316 or so "sea shells". They weren't actually shells, but just looked like large clam shells. They were part of the stone work. Some duke or other still lives there on occasion. Across the road from the shell house was a large church of some sort. We went inside and looked around. Actually, one looks inside an awful lot of large churches in Spain. The Spanish seem awfully proud of their large, ornate churches even though they don't actually attend services in them.

Anyway, after we wandered around inside this church for a bit, a retired priest wandered out, grabbed a microphone and started to talk about the church. Needless to say, I didn't understand anything he was saying. A couple of our group were around "translators", but I wasn't one of them. After a bit, the priest started doing some chant and plainsong to demonstrate the acoustics of the building (at least that's my guess as to what he was demonstrating; he could have just been blessing us). I found that pretty interesting. Depending on the pitch and vowel sound, the building structure seemed to amplify or dampen his sound. So I started to wonder if the structure of chant started to dictate the architectural design of the large churches, or vice versa. Whatever, I found that part pretty interesting. After he was done, a bunch of the students, and some other folks gathered around the priest and he chatted away at us. He said he could speak some half dozen or so languages, Spanish, Italian, German, English (his English was good), Latin, etc. He seemed quite a character, and reveled in the attention, but also just seemed to enjoy being with people.

Our next stop was the university itself. One of the things one does, apparently, is stand in a courtyard looking at an elaborate facade of one of the buildings trying to find the "frog" among all the other ornamentation (saints, gargoyles, shields, crosses, etc.). Eventually we did find (or at least someone found it and pointed it out to the rest of us) the frog. A sort of frog-like shape was perched atop one of the skulls on the wall. While it was interesting to look for, and eventually see the frog, it was also pretty interesting just watching a large crowd of people standing around staring up at a wall.

The university still operates much like of old, and similarly to most European universities. Attending students sit in large lecture halls and listen to the professor talk about whatever he wants. Then at the end of the year there is an exam and the students either pass or fail the course. They don't have homework, mandatory attendance, quizzes, midterm exams, etc. Actually, they have loosened up a bit. They apparently have an exam in the middle of the year now, in January, and another at the end of the year, in June. A couple of our students thought it seemed like a nice place to which they might transfer, especially when they heard how cheap the tuition would be. Somehow, I figure that American students who are used to being lead along the way by lots of teacher interaction, assignments, etc. would have considerable trouble adjusting to the European style of university education. I'm not sure it appeals to me, and I'm probably a more self-motivated student than most 20-something Americans. Anyway, it was interesting to look around the old buildings and think of the medieval scholars debating about the angels on the head of a pin and such things. Salamanca is most noted for law and literature I believe.

We ended up our day at the Cathedral (or one of them). Actually, they had two of them right there together, the new one (El Nueve, or something like that) which dates only to the 17th century and an old one off to one side which has parts dating to the 11th or 12th century. Like all the cathedrals in Spain, it was full of golden images made possible from the plunder of the Americas. As I've probably already mentioned, I'm a bit down on Catholicism at the moment. The main chancel had a huge screen behind it comprised of something like 40 or so pictures. I found them overwhelming to contemplate for a while, and my mind just stared at them in a fog. Eventually, I began to pick out familiar bits and realized that the pictures depicted the life of Christ from the annunciation to healing lepers to the meeting of the disciples in the upper room and so forth. It was pretty interesting once that all kicked in.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps in the middle of the day, or perhaps while we were getting ready to gather up again, we went down the hill along the river which flows through the area and saw a bridge built by the Romans. At our end of the bridge there was also a statue of a pig (I believe) which had been left by the Celts who predated the Romans in that area. There was a couple basking in the sun (it was about the only day we had when it didn't rain) by a wall overlooking the river who had a dog who was having a wonderful time playing in the water and dragging sticks around and such. I thought how much fun Brewster would have had there, and felt a small twinge of homesickness.

When we got home from Salamanca around 8:30, a few people decided to head off to El Zagal for dinner and some others decided to see if they could find pizza. I went in search of Hazel and she and I joined the El Zagal bunch.

Sunday we had a free day. So, since the schedule had been rearranged so that I would not be around for the visit to the Prado (originally I was going to be around for that [but the schedule changed]), Hazel decided we should head down that way. The Prado is the most famous museum in Spain and houses the best works of the great Spanish artists, El Greco, Velasquez, and Goya. It turns out that admission is also free on Sunday, so that seemed a good deal, although the normal admission is pretty minimal. We wandered in and were accosted by an older gentleman who wanted to know if we would like a guide. Hazel said something about renting one of the audio guide machines, and the gentleman said, no, he'd take us around. It turns out to have been a good deal even though it wasn't exactly inexpensive (unlike everything else. On the other hand it was only about $35 for an hour or so. Given that I cost over $100 per hour to hire to do science, that doesn't seem so bad. Of course this gentleman's overhead isn't so large.).

Anyway, he said that when visiting the Prado it was imperative that one see the important works of the three aforementioned artists. The Prado turns out to be a bit of a rabbit warren, and its collection not particularly well mapped on the brochure handed out at the entrance. So we followed this guy around giving vague glances at the Raphaels, etc., as we walked by them. He stopped first at the El Grecos and told us about the artist and some of the interesting characteristics of his paintings (all the people always have their two middle fingers together; the paint smudges along the borders were put there by El Greco who wanted to make sure he had his colors correct before he applied them to the canvas, etc.).

When we got to Velasquez, we learned about various ways to do perspective. Velasquez sometimes did it by making the light in the backgrounds dimmer. Velasquez also often painted out something and repositioned it. So we could see the shadows of where a horse's hind legs had originally been, and how they were repositioned to make things more perfect (or something like that).

I think the part I liked the best was the Goya exhibit. I didn't know all that much about Goya, but he turns out to have been quite prolific. He was also one of the first impressionists (he painted up to about 1830). His earlier works were pretty much representational. He painted a huge number of pictures of "daily life" which were meant to be patterns for tapestries. In his later life, he bought a house in the country and went through a fairly prolonged depression. He painted directly on the walls of his house. Some 50 years later the owner of the house got in touch with the royal museum, or something to that effect, and told them about the paintings in his house. They went and lifted all the paintings from the walls and placed them on canvases, and they're now in the Prado. There were fascinating pictures of religious processions, demons, debauched people, etc. They're jointly referred to as his black paintings. I went back for a closer look after our guide left us.

One of the other things he did show us were a couple of tables what were Italian in design, I believe, and consisted essentially of intricate mosaic designs made entirely from natural stone colors. Our guide would gaze at these tables and sigh, "they don't make things like this anymore". We think perhaps we was a retired professor. He had a rather courtly manner and certainly seemed to know his subject. He surely was correct that we'd never have been able to adequately see the most important parts of the Prado's collection without his help.

We tired of the Prado around 2 p.m. or so and decided to search for a place for lunch. In general the Spanish don't have lunch before 2 or so anyway, so we were trying to fit in with the culture. Pretty much by accident, I believe, we happened on a sort of family restaurant which was down in a basement. Actually, it looked like it had once been an old wine cellar. There were several large, multi-generational families dining there, so it seems we hit an appropriate place. The food was ok, although not exceptional by any means. A single, middle aged man at a table near us noticed I had ordered steak, and explained the correct terminology for ordering the degree of doneness. Actually Hazel had already figured out the correct term, so we were ok on that. Later on, the man came back and shared the end of his bottle of wine with us. He figured that our meal deserved a good wine as opposed to the stuff we got in the glass of wine we had ordered (although one doesn't order a "glass of wine", I think for a single serving one asks for a "cup" or something like that - anyway, we'd finally managed to get only a single serving). So he poured some for us and explained that it was special Spanish wine from the Rojo region, north of Madrid, over the mountains, I believe. It was quite good. So we had quite a nice lunch, enjoying watching the families gathering and enjoying the Rojo wine, etc.

After lunch we decided to stroll through the Retiro, which is a large park in Madrid. It seems to be the favored hang out of the growing immigrant population, many of whom come from South America. There was a wide promenade along the length of the park and as we strolled along we came upon several bands playing (the Andean-type bands playing pan pipes and guitars and drums seem to be popular), puppet shows, fortune tellers, a couple of Asian gentlemen offering ancient, therapeutic Chinese or Japanese massage, and one guy who seemed to be a sort of street magician who spoke in what even to me was a bad Spanish accent. We couldn't tell if the guy just had a tin ear (we think he was American or pretending to be) or if the bad accent was part of his schtick. Anyway it was quite fun. There was some drumming across the pond from the promenade, but we didn't get over there to investigate. When we finally left the park, we walked down a hill past several dozen little bookseller's stalls. Most of them were closed, but it was interesting to me that there were so many one right after another.

After we got home and napped and so forth, we met the students at El Zagal for dinner.

On Monday, we had another lecture at Suffolk U. This time we had a Cuban/American/Canary Islander who talked about the history of Spain. The Spanish claim that they kicked out the Jews and Moors back in 1492 or there abouts, but he said that wasn't really true. The three groups had lived together and intermarried for quite a number of centuries before that time, so that the Spanish people were for the most part a mix of the three cultures and that their cultural attitudes, behaviors, etc. were colored by all three groups despite the attempts of the Catholic monarchs to pretend otherwise. Apparently the Spanish wouldn't admit this themselves until some guy living in exile brought it up. Since he was in exile I guess they could ignore him for a while, but this guy's ideas eventually seeped through and people began to look around and could see that indeed quite a bit of the architecture does show design elements first introduced by the Moors, etc.

In the afternoon we went to the Palacio Real. Mostly Juan Carlos and Sophia hang out in a palace somewhat on the outskirts of Madrid, but I guess this is the place they show up for official things still. It was pretty gaudy. Our guide was some woman who had obviously obtained her position through influence. Her English was atrocious and her manner overbearing. None of us thought much of the place and we were glad when we left. We were pretty tired by then, so just went back to our hotel and chilled out.

Tuesday was my last day with the group. We had an outing to Ávila and Segovia. Ávila is about 50 miles west and a bit north of Madrid (through the mountain tunnel again) while Segovia is almost due north of Madrid. Ávila is famous as a walled city that could withstand the Moors (60-some towers, I think it was), and also where Saint Theresa of Ávila hung out. She is a famous 18th century (I think it is) Christian mystic who is still quite revered as a teacher of Christian spirituality along with her spiritual advisor St. John of the Cross. She founded (or perhaps just reformed) the Carmelite order ([among them] the barefoot nuns who had a place across the plaza from our Hostel Roma in Madrid). Apparently she thought the church of her time was getting to be a bit too worldly (I can't argue with here there - it still is in my opinion).

Anyway, we wandered around the city a bit and through a church built into the walls (the earliest Gothic cathedral in Spain, built in the 12th century). Then we visited the church of St. Theresa and got to see some actual relics, such as St. Theresa's left ring finger, and the sole of a sandal she'd worn and such things. There was also a set of rosary beads which were supposed to have the scent of roses which I believe is the scent St. Theresa is alleged to have given off after she died in spite of the fact that they had covered her remains with lime (she was pretty special).

After Ávila, we headed off for Segovia. Segovia has a huge Roman aqueduct bringing water from a spring some 9 miles away in the mountains into the city. We got off our bus there and walked into the city, hunting for the place where we were to have lunch. Along the way we had to dodge quite a number of gypsy women who were trying to force us to buy lace mantillas from them and such things.

After lunch, we visited the newest gothic cathedral in Spain, built in the 17th century, I believe. The main interest in Segovia, however, other than the aqueduct is a castle which serves as the model for the one at Disney World. It is built on the side of a hill and has round towers and such things. My recollection is that Ferdinand and Isabella held court there. They had one room with quite a collection of busts of the kings of Leon and Castille looking down from a shelf circumscribing the room just below the ceiling. This castle seemed to me in somewhat better taste than the Palacio Real, and I would recommend Juan Carlos rethink his choice of venue for special state occasions. A lot of the stone work in Segovia showed signs of Moorish influence despite the place's once having been the haunt of the "Catholic Monarchs", as Ferdinand and Isabella seem to be called. The Moors didn't believe in depicting living things, so had lots of intricate geometric designs. They also varied the colors of the stones they used to make things interesting. The gothic cathedral we saw had amazing ceilings made from red and white marble placed in a sort of striped pattern. The Moors were the ultimate crafts people in Spain, so when the "Catholic Monarchs" kicked them out they kicked out the people who were actually competent at doing things. Kicking out the Jews, or course, resulted in kicking out all the smart people. So after those wonderful "Catholic monarchs" got done they had left their country peopled with stupid incompetents. The decline of Spain into a second-rate power followed not all that long thereafter. Somehow, I think there's a lesson in the benefits of diversity here, but I'm not sure the Spanish understand this even today. They're not happy with the immigrant influx.

Well, this was my last day in Spain. We returned from Segovia in time to have one last dinner at El Zagal. Then the students went off to find a disco and Hazel and I went back to the Hostel Roma to pack me up (and for Hazel to give me some last minute instructions regarding her affairs at Middlesex which couldn't wait until she returned a week later).

On Wednesday I had a last breakfast (with those who showed up) at the Vienna Capellano and bid them all adieu. They were off to Suffolk for another lecture to prepare them for a visit to the Prado in the afternoon. I was back to the Hostel Roma to get someone to call me a cab. It seemed to me that the trip back out to the airport took quite a different route than the one in from the airport, but the cost seemed to be about the same. I sat around in the airport for a while, then got on the plane to Pais, where I changed to a plane to Boston. I arrived in Boston in the evening and got to Reading around 8 p.m. (Boston time, it was something like 2 a.m. according to my body).

Good old Zachary didn't let me down. It was no time at all [after I got in] before he asked me what was for dinner. So I got to come home and cook for him and wash up the dishes he and Kim had amassed over the previous week (by then Justin was off with the Freelance Bishops on tour).

Hazel's classes were due to begin the next Monday, but she wasn't going to be in town until Monday evening. So she had me go to her classes and hand around syllabi and so forth. Two of the Monday classes were canceled, so I only had to deal with one of them, and it was reasonably early in the morning, so I didn't miss all that much work. It was sort of fun being a professor for a day even though I didn't know the subject matter. I could at least say "Me llamo Señor Piper. ¿Cómo te llamas?" So we did that for a bit and I sent them off with the promise that they'd have a "real" teacher the next time.

As I mentioned, Justin and the Freelance Bishops went on tour while I was gone. They traveled out to Colorado and back and had shows in such places as Buffalo, Chicago, Lawrence, KS, Vail, CO, Steamboat Springs, CO, Tulsa, Little Rock, Fayetteville, AR, and some other places. They were gone a little over two weeks and sold a bunch of CDs and were generally well received. Justin things that they didn't even lose money on the deal. He got back Monday, and has been recovering since. No gigs this week.

Well, this thing has gotten out of hand. Sorry to be so long winded. Hazel wrote a nice concise two-page summary of her trip for her mother, and she was there a week longer. Oh well, some of us just blather a lot. Next week, my computer class begins, so I won't be likely to take up so much of your time again soon. Take care.


© 2003–2006 by Lawrence G. Piper
e-mail me:
Or use my contact form

Last update: Wednesday, July 11, 2007