Important Notice

Special captions are available for the humor-impaired.

Pages

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Un Día en la Vida

Me desperté
Salí de la cama
Me pasé el peine por la cabeza
Bajé la escalera y me tomé un té
Y levantando la vista vi que era tarde

The Beatles

I read the news today, oh boy. Big deal. So what? I read the news everyday. The difference is that now I read the news mostly in Spanish and French. Every day I read El País from Madrid and Levante which is one of is the local papers from Valencia. This is what everyone here reads. I read Le Figaro from Paris to improve my French, taking at least one article every day and finding every new word in the dictionary. Once again, it's not a big deal because lots of people here speak and read French. Things that I once considered odd and foreign are now run-of-the-mill and ordinary, bordering on the routine and boring. I suppose this change I have undergone is normal, inevitable, and necessary for anyone who has set up shop in Spain. I also imagine that there are lots of people who move here and just sort of pretend that nothing is different, holding on to their mother language, eating the same sort of food they ate at home, keeping with their own people, and blocking out Spanish daily life as much as possible.

Sometimes I think that for every cup of coffee I share with a Spanish friend, effortlessly ordering, conversing for 45 minutes, greeting acquaintances who pass by on the street, paying the bill, and bidding farewell; for every phone conversation in which I move—without thinking—from present to future, to conditional, to the subjunctive, and perhaps four other verb tenses; for every trip to the market in which I now know exactly what is expected of me as a customer; as more and more of daily life here becomes regular and completely un-foreign to me, I seem to be losing my sense of wonder about Spanish life that defined my first two years in this country. I guess it's like moving to a much higher altitude: you either become acclimatized or you don't. It's a lot more comfortable breathing the new air than gasping and wheezing on what remains of your former existence.

It's just that up until now, most of what I have written about Spain is from the perspective of a newcomer. I think my rookie visa expired months and months ago and it's time to get some sort of new stamp on my writing passport. Don't get me wrong, I'm not at the point where people are going to mistake me for a Spaniard—like a friend of mine who has spent ten years in Sevilla—but that is sort of a lofty goal I entertain. The Spanish life and culture that has been pouring over me for the past two years haven't worn away all of my American edges, but I have definitely noticed a change. Everything is a lot smoother, a lot easier, and more normal. I think that I have reached that tipping point when going back to life in Seattle would be more difficult than moving forward with life in Spain.

I remember the same phenomena when I lived in Greece many years ago. If you were only there for the normal military tour of a year and a half, you would go home with some great memories, but nothing had really changed in your own internal psyche. For those of us who stayed longer, we became marked permanently with the stamp of Greek life. Going back to life in the States was a tough adjustment. The hurried pace of American life seemed silly and pointless. We tried to make our lives in the States more like what we left behind in Athens or on some half-deserted island in the Mediterranean. It was confusing to have certain things missing from our daily routines. It was as if someone had rearranged the furniture in a blind person's home. It took a lot of stumbling to get used to everything once again—if we ever did.

It would be difficult for me to imagine life without all of the familiar Spanish things around me. It's not as if life in Spain is so completely different from America. It's not like I've had to go native like Margaret Mead in Samoa (although a Spanish person might feel this way if they had to live in some place like rural Arkansas). It must admit that I have come to take a lot of things here for granted and if they were taken away I would miss them terribly. I just can picture myself back in the States screaming at some kid in a restaurant because I can't get a sandwich made with tortilla de patatas, or wondering why there aren't bullfight posters on the walls of the bars, or why the car stereos of 16 year old boys are blasting rap instead of flamenco music. The good news is that I don't have to worry about that, at least not for now.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Immigration, Integration, and Acceptance


Spain is quickly becoming a country of immigrants: Chinese, Moroccans, Sub-Sahara Africans, Romanians, South Americans, and a sprinkling of other nationalities. In 1980, immigrants made up less than one half of one percent of the population of Spain. In 2008, foreigners are something like 11.3% of the total population. The big waves of immigrants didn't really start arriving until this century. This means that Spaniards have had less than a generation to deal with this country-altering phenomena. Traditionally, people come to a new culture and they don't speak the language, or very little. Their children learn both the language of their parents and that of their adopted country. Their children, in turn, learn very little or none of the language of their grandparents. Spain is still, for the most part, in the era of these grandparents who have only recently arrived in the new country.

Without a doubt, the most notable group of immigrants in Spain—at least in Valencia—are the Chinese. I have mentioned before that different immigrant groups seem to dominate certain aspects of the economy. The Chinese own just about every variety store in Valencia. They also are moving into the neighborhood bar and café industry. In many of these businesses you will find the parents and children working together. At this point in Spain's wave of immigration, there are few grandparents in the equation. Often the parents speak very little Spanish. If they have teenage children, the kids usually speak perfect or near-perfect Spanish. Although these kids may have been born in Spain or have spent most of their lives here, they seem to have at least one foot in the world of their parents. They socialize with other Chinese kids, they listen to Chinese music, and they watch Chinese movies and television shows. In the immigrant formula stated above, this is normal. The children of these teenagers will be much more Spanish in every way and many may not even speak Chinese.

The Spanish attitude towards the Chinese here is mixed. On the one hand, most Spaniards see the Chinese as very hard working, industrious, and well-behaved. To say that someone “works like a Chinese” means they are a hard worker. It's rare to read in the paper about a crime committed by a Chinese immigrant. On the other hand, I think that most Spaniards are a little mistrustful of the Chinese community here. The Chinese aren't exactly famous for integrating into Spanish society. There seems to be a powerful underworld controlling the Chinese business interests in Spain that only the Chinese understand. Most Spanish people see the Chinese as totally separate from Spanish life. It is rare to see anyone of Chinese descent participating in Spanish life in almost any way. You almost never see Chinese people even drinking coffee or having a beer, except in a Chinese owned café that is also frequented by Chinese people.

Other than the Chinese, there are very few immigrants from other far east countries so the Spanish lump them all together as Chinese, something that, as an American, makes me cringe a bit. The Spanish will refer to a variety store owned by a Chinese immigrant as a “Chino.” Cafés are also getting this label applied to them as the Chinese move into this market. For the most part, the Chinese are a bit of an oddity for the Spanish. There is a matador known as the “Torero Chino” in sort of a freak show fashion. It is rare to see Spanish and Chinese adults in mixed company. It's still a bit soon for that. I have seen only two Chinese-Spanish personalities on the television. One of the Chinese personalities is a female host on a comedy news program and the other is young man on a drama series. I remember watching the drama series with a Spanish friend who was a bit shocked to see a Chinese actor on a Spanish series. The Spanish don't look at a Chinese immigrant and consider them to be Spanish.

The black African immigrants are not as wealthy or as organized as the Chinese. Many Chinese immigrants are something akin to economic colonists who have been sent by the Chinese government to live abroad and peddle Chinese manufactured goods. The Africans come to Spain because of the relatively porous borders and the abundance of undocumented employment available in agriculture and the construction trades. With the recent economic downturn, these jobs are in scarce supply and there have been tensions brewing between different immigrant groups and Spanish locals as they compete for jobs. As unemployment rises in Spain, locals are returning to jobs that once were outsourced to immigrants. There haven't been too many incidents thus far but things could get worse before they get better.

I sort of fall between the cracks as far as my immigrant status. As an American, most Spanish people consider me to be nothing more than a tourist. I suppose that I am a tourist. The same can be said of most of the other foreigners from European Union countries living in Spain, at least the wealthier ones who work in white collar jobs. Strangely, Europeans and Americans are more accepted by the Spanish than Latin Americans who speak Spanish.

It will take a few years of adjustment for Spain to become comfortable with the new additions to the national make up. It will take a few years for the immigrants to accept Spain as their home. Racism and xenophobia are present everywhere there are different races and nationalities living together. I don't think that it is fair to expect Spain to get everything right after only a few years of dealing with these problems.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Class Warfare in America

Will the Losing Side Ever Start Fighting?

Part One: Hollywood, You Suck!

I saw a very disturbing film at my cheapo double-feature movie theater last week. It's a movie I normally wouldn't poke with a ten foot stick, but my standards are different when it comes to dubbed titles. I'll watch—or try to watch—almost anything if I think it is helping me learn Spanish. This movie is called The Women and was changed to Putas Ricas (literally, Rich Hags) in Spanish and tells the story of some of the worst excesses of American consumerism ever chronicled on film. First of all, I don't think anyone in the movie drove a car that costs less than about double the average annual salary for a school teacher. I didn't stay for the whole movie (my stomach isn't as strong as it used to be) but the plot seemed to hinge on the marital infidelity of the husband of one of the wealthy harpies. I don't get why she would have been upset about her husband screwing around. He is just upgrading. I mean, she probably insists on buying a new car every year or two, so what's the difference?

In one of the first scenes a particularly horrible creature, played by Annette Bening, is ordering around her manicurist in about the same way I would imagine Marie Antoinette talked to her chamber maids. The fact that this urchin, this draft animal even has the gall to open up her fat gob seems repugnant to the Bening character. I mean, how dare she talk to her, human being to human being! “Just do my nails, cut my grass, clean my house, bring me a martini and a salad, and shut up.” Uppity servants are so tedious. As the executed monarchs of 18th century France said, Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Now where did we store those guillotines? When we find them we'll start with Meg Ryan.

Remember how at the beginning of this financial crisis, or meltdown, or financial holocaust, or whatever this is, remember at the beginning when the right-wingers were insisting that the whole thing was brought on because a few poor folks missed their mortgage payments? According to the conservatives, these people had no right to own a home in the first place. Meanwhile, John McCain can't even count how many homes he owns. That's OK, though. He's never missed a payment (assuming he didn't just pay cash for them up front). I can't tell you how many times I have heard middle class conservatives defend America's hyper-rich, as if the fate of our democracy depends on their disgusting excesses. We first started hearing about this new American plutocracy back in the late 1980s, a few short years after the Reagan tax cuts freed America's richest citizens from any responsibility towards the United States of America. They were free to make billions while shipping American jobs off to the lowest bidder. God bless globilization!

I first heard about this new class in Tom Wolfe's absolutely brilliant novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, first serialized in Rolling Stone magazine, back when I was still an ardent reader and subscriber. In Bonfires, Wolfe described this newly emerging class as completely separated, or “insulated” as he called it, from the rest of our society. It was the dawn of the new gilded age.

As it turns out, we would learn that Wolfe actually admired this new breed of greed. I realize that you can't expect novelists to know anything about economics, but you expect them to keep their mouths shut if they are completely stupid and misguided on the subject. Wolfe went on to write a laughably short-sighted essay in Harper's magazine called In the Land of the Rococo Marxists*. I hated the essay when I read it in June 2000 and rereading it today is enough to make me laugh and scream at the same time. He laments the fact that America wasn't celebrating her status as the leader of the free world. He laments the fact that, “According to one survey, 73 percent of Americans don't want the United States to intervene abroad unless in cooperation with other nations, presumably so that we won't get all the blame.” I only hope that with these two disastrous wars we are fighting that the number of Americans not desiring unilateral action has reached 100%. Wolfe says that the only skill new novelists needed was, “Indignation about the powers that be and the bourgeois fools who did their bidding.” I'll be the first to admit that most novels are fatuous and have nothing to do with modern life, but what skill does Wolfe think is necessary to be a novelist? I would say the most important quality in writing is a clear eye. Wolfe had a front row seat for the entire modern era and yet he blames all of our ills on college professors. This is a trick often used by conservatives, that of demonizing a powerless and impotent sector of society in order to deflect criticism from the real sources of power. Who could have less power than college professors, or Michael Moore, or Cindy Sheehan (the mother of a slain U.S. soldier who became a voice of protest in the Iraq war)? Meanwhile, not only have the truly powerful escaped most of our ire, we want to be just like them some day. How blind must a man be that he can't see that it is America's hyper-rich who have caused our society the most damage?

During these past 25 years which have seen the rise of America's hyper-rich we have seen an equivalent rise in anti-intellectualism, a championing of the lack of sophistication. We made it cool to be stupid because intellectuals were the real bad guys in modern life. People who were well-educated made us feel stupid, they made us uneasy with our own mediocrity. Being rich was seen as a a finer aspiration for stupid people than the arduous and never-ending task of acquiring knowledge. “If you're so smart then why ain't you rich,” became battle cry of the stupid. We relished tales of uneducated people making their way up the economic ladder, rejoicing every time some moron athlete or movie star proudly confessed to never having read a book. The stupid and the mediocre became the heroes in countless movies. The pursuit of happiness was simply the pursuit of wealth. Our championing of mediocrity culminated with the election of George W. Bush. He was rich and very dumb and now very powerful. The dummies had won, or that's what they were lead to believe. These days I think that few of them think they have won.

We shouted down anyone who had ever bothered to keep reading after graduating from college. Intellectuals were mocked. Libraries were closed and replaced with more business-friendly mega-bookstores which have replaced the classics with aisle after aisle of get-rich-quick treatises, self-help books (although getting rich is the best self-help), and stacks of diet manuals. Getting fat used to be the domain of the rich but now just about anyone can enjoy this former identifying characteristic of the wealthy. In fact, we now seem to have inverted this trend, but a population of fat, happily-deluded, and stupid people seems to be the goose laying the golden eggs of mindless materialism. People already have too much with their large order of freedom fries, but now you can get 30 percent more for a few extra pennies. More is always better.

To say anything against America's new oligarchy is to advocate class warfare. I have news for the people saying this: We have been in a class war. I just think that it's about time for the losing side to start fighting back. Here is the cruel realty of economics: the pie is only so big. It has to be shared by all of us. If a few fat rich kids are eating it all this leaves very little for the kids at the bottom. I could bury people with statistics of growing poverty rates in America but I won't do that here. I don't need to unless you have completely relinquished you common sense. Take a look around. Do things look like they are going well for a lot of Americans? Or perhaps you feel that poverty only preys on the lazy? As more and more middle class Americans are being sucked into the vortex of job loss and poverty, more people will realize they have been buying into a fantasy created by the hyper-rich.

As poverty rates soar, the ultra-rich are getting richer. Our country is starting to look like a starving person with a 70 pound tick on his ass. As this tick has grown at the expense of the host organism, we have been thanking the tick for the privilege. Our popular culture has revered the super-rich while telling the rest of us that it's OK to be stupid. It's not only OK, but it's cool to be a moron. This wave of anti-intellectualism has been particularly damaging to black culture in America. Popular culture (AKA the ruling class) has glorified the basest elements of black culture: rappers, athletes, drug dealers, convicts (often the same thing). Nothing is more sacred in pop culture than an illiterate rich person. A stupid rich rapper or athlete seems to mock the once-cherished value of hard work and achievement. We have learned that it's much better to have luck or talent than to work hard and learn something—something available to everyone. It's the moral equivalent of buying a lottery ticket instead of putting money in the bank. Why work hard in school when you can just luck out and play in the NBA or get a record contract? It is incredibly ironic—at least to me—when the pop culture moguls portray these individuals as rebels in our society. The most subversive thing that the underclass in America could possibly do is to vote, not get a tattoo or write a few childish lines of verse about...about whatever the hell rap music is about these days.

And we have been bombarded by images of just how wonderful it must be to be sitting on top of vulgar heaps of currency (probably more euros these days than dollars). We watch endless hours of movies like The Women that infect our psyches with the disease of materialism, greed, and an insane hierarchy of status built upon the accumulation of wealth. You aren't really living unless you are fabulously wealthy, at least that's what they say in the movies. Hell, if you aren't rich you probably aren't even capable of achieving orgasm. Instead of resenting the excesses of our ruling class in America, we are taught to admire them. There probably isn't a college freshman in the country who doesn't think that he/she isn't going to be incredibly wealthy some day so why should we resent rich people? They could be our neighbors some day soon. The idea that we can all be stinking rich is a sillier notion than heaven and twice as farfetched.

I can say for myself that I am sick of seeing nothing but movies about rich assholes. This doesn't speak to my life in any way. I pretty much hate Woody Allen for a lot of reasons but I would like to see him make a movie about working class people for once in his career. The thing is, I think that Hollywood is simply too out-of-touch to even recognize the way a vast majority of Americans live their daily lives. This is sort of ironic when you consider how “liberal” most Hollywood stars claim to be. If they are so liberal then they should stop polluting the minds of the folks who watch their movies. Stop telling people—in so many words—that being middle class or being poor, gasp, is some sort of crime or something to be ashamed of.

Through Hollywood's glamorization of our richest citizens we have come to despise the poor among us. The real class warfare going on in America is between the poor and the middle to lower-middle class. Just like in the real wars, the rich always hire others to do the fighting for them. And please don't tell me that the movie moguls are just giving the people what they want. They have always told us exactly what to want. We need to change that arrangement somehow.

* I have never for a minute doubted Wolfe's talent as a writer. Even this myopic essay had it's odd gem, like his description of one left-leaning writer. “Actually, she was just another scribbler who spent her life signing up for protest meetings and lumbering to the podium, encumbered by her prose style, which had a handicapped parking sticker valid at Partisan Review.”

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Plenilunio (Full Moon)

After reading just two of his books, Ventanas de Manhattan and Plenilunio, I would have to say that Antonio Muñoz Molina is my favorite contemporary Spanish author. Plenilunio is ostensibly a police novel that deals with the case of a murdered child. I don't read books of this genre as a general rule but this novel really stands well above the usual pulp stuff. I would read more crime novels if they were more like this one. He is every bit as skillful as John Le Carré. I think what I dislike so much about the whole serial killer genre is that most of the time they make the killer out to be some sort of evil genius, like a James Bond villain. Muñoz Molina has a villain who is just a creepy loser like they are in real life. There often is a certain banality in evil and it is never glamorous.

Plenilunio is a police novel without the detective using his gun or fists to do his job. In one section when he is interrogating the suspect he doesn't even raise his voice to the level of shouting and his most aggressive act towards the criminal is abandoning the formal usted for the familiar form. Muñoz Molina also doesn't pander to readers looking for revenge. I can probably count on one hand how many books and films about criminals end with the guy actually getting arrested and the due process of the law doing what we put it there to do. We always seem to want to inflict our own idea of justice which means shooting the bad guy or throwing him off a bridge. It's not that easy as he explains in this brief but telling passage:

No había un modo de reparar el ultraje, de hacer verdadera justicia,de borrar siquiera una parte del sentimiento provocado. Sentir orgullo, envanercerse del éxito, le hubiera parecido no sólo una obscenidad, sino también una falta de respeto hacia las víctimas.

There was no way to make amends for the outrage, to have real justice, to erase even a part of the hurt. To feel pride (the detective for catching the criminal), to feel vanity for his success, to him would have seemed like not only an obscenity, but also a lack of respect for the victims


What I love most about this novel is his incredible eye and attention for detail. I noticed the author's acute vision when I read Ventanas de Manhattan which is one of the mot insightful travel narratives that I have ever read. The story of Plenilunio takes place in a fictitious small town in Spain but I would love to see the actual place the author had in mind when he wrote the book. He describes everything in such incredible detail that we can almost see for ourselves exactly what the author sees. His characterizations are equally as well detailed, if not more so.

I watched the movie adaptation of the book right after finishing the novel. It was fairly faithful to the book although they tried to make more of the killer than the author intended. I suppose that movie goers would feel cheated if they weren't given a criminal to really hate. In the book he was just a nondescript loser.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

War on Christmas Update

Perhaps you have been hiding out in a cave, or waiting for the rapture in a cabin stocked with guns in the middle of Montana, or holding a candle light vigil at the McCain-Palin headquarters while your petition for a recount is being examined. I have some terrible news for you and I don't know how to tell you so I'm just going to tell you. Folks, there is a war on Christmas.

We have attempted to prove through rational inquiry that Christmas is real. We felt that we could provide more conclusive evidence than the 10,000 letters addressed to Santa Claus that vindicated Saint Nick in Miracle on 34th Street. We felt that only through scientific methods could we coerce retailers into returning to the good old days when clerks could greet shoppers with “Merry Christmas” instead of the hyper politically correct “Happy Holidays” now currently in vogue.
We began with a list of Christmas truisms and exposed them to the cruel scrutiny of scientific investigation.

Does the holiday season promote peace on earth and goodwill?

Sure, why not? Just as long as you aren't standing between me and sale items at Wal-Mart. I myself am not a violent man, but they had Hanes men's briefs on sale, three for $7. You need to give me some room to work here people or someone is going down. Next time Wal-Mart has a stampede of bargain hunters the National Guard should fire off a couple of warning shots to direct the crowd.

Can reindeer fly?

For most of you, apocryphal accounts of flying reindeer and popular ballads of the exploits of Santa’s sleigh drivers are all the proof you need, but we wanted to establish this fact scientifically. We traveled to the Lapland region of Finland to find a herd of reindeer. We transported fifteen of the sturdiest examples of the breed to our testing center at the Space Needle in Seattle. Working closely with a team of aerodynamic engineers from Boeing Aircraft we joyfully launched the reindeer, one by one, from the top of this Seattle icon.

Can reindeer fly? The short answer is “Hell no.” The Boeing people actually said that what they saw was the exact opposite of flying, but many of the test subjects certainly displayed characteristics of a species that desperately wanted to fly, and that is good enough for us. On a side note, reindeer meat is quite flavorful and tender, although the tenderness may have been the result of dropping the animals from 605 feet.

Could Santa Claus slide down a chimney?

For our next experiment we enlisted the help of 65 year old Armando Escovedo. We lowered the retired Seattle fireman into a chimney and waited to see how long it would take him to make it into the living room.

Although paramedics pronounced Mr. Escovedo dead at the scene after spending nearly three hours extracting him from his sooty grave, we feel that our test subject may have had other health issues that contributed to his demise and thus to the failure of our experiment. We are experiencing some difficulty in finding another old, gray-haired, and overweight volunteer for further investigation into this matter.

Can Santa's elves make toys for every child on the planet?

Although they refused to allow us to call them elves, we employed a group of midgets to work under harsh arctic conditions.

The result was a rather resounding Yes! Yes! Yes! We proved, without a doubt, that working a small group of “elves” 20 hours a day, seven days a week our team was able to make a hell of a lot of toys. Granted, the toys were kind of crappy, and thanks to an Amnesty International report we’re not exactly going to win any awards for being employee-friendly. Whether or not we face a human rights violation tribunal in The Hague or not, there can be no denying that it is possible to make a prodigious amount of toys using a well-motivated group of height-challenged workers. The trick is to keep them inspired. Techniques that we found to be successful were constant threats of physical violence, holding workers' family members hostage, and always supplying an open bar at company functions.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Religion As a Societal Illness

Religion As a Societal Illness

Archbishop of Toledo, Antonio Cañizares, said that removing crucifixes from a public school in Valladolid, “Shows a Christian-o-phobia that, ultimately, is self-hatred. Our society is very ill.” Whatever you say, church boy. I'm sure the archbishop would like to return to the good old days of Franco when the Catholic Church enjoyed a favored place along side the fascists in power. Back when priests were actually paid by the state, back when pederasty was in full bloom in the sacristies of Spanish churches and denied by church officials. Now that was a sick society. I have heard many Christian leaders declare that our modern times are decadent and lacking in morals. I couldn't disagree more.

We have a long way to go but we have made significant strides to include all citizens into the framework of modern society. Most of this has been done without the aid of organized religion and many gains made by certain sectors of the population have come about while incurring direct opposition from religious groups. The Catholic Church still wants to deny homosexuals certain rights. It's not like Catholics have ever been on the vanguard in any of the epic struggles to free the oppressed. The Church has always been content with incurring the favor of whatever party is in power, no matter how despicable these leaders may be. In Spain, the Catholic hierarchy just can't get over the fact that Spain is now a secular state.

If church leaders had their way Spain would go back to criminalizing abortions as is the case in every Latin American country. This doesn't eliminate abortion, it just threatens the lives of thousands of poor women annually who seek to end their unwanted pregnancies. Up to 5,000 women die each year from abortions in Latin America, and hundreds of thousands more are hospitalized. Latin American women also have more abortion, on average, than women who live in countries where abortion is legal. Of course, the Catholic Church is also violently opposed to birth control and has been successful in keeping it largely unavailable in the desperately poor nations of Latin America. Of course, wealthy women in Latin America can find birth control and can obtain safe abortions, just like any other place where these things are illegal so the Catholic stance against birth control and abortion only hurts the poor.

Religion also doesn't care about the economic well-being of anyone other than themselves. I find Catholics who supported McCain in the past election to be incredibly inconsistent in their thinking. Many Catholics seem to be one issue voters with the one issue being a return to the criminalization of abortion. This give-birth-at any-cost stance prompted Pope Benedict XVI to label as blackmail the economic aid packages developed countries give to poor nations with stipulations that the undeveloped countries will work to reduce population growth. When I came across the headline for this article in Le Figaro “Pope Accuses Rich Countries of Blackmailing Poor Countries” I first thought to myself that perhaps for once the pontiff had taken a stand against income inequality. Nope, he just wants poor nations to continue pumping out as many little undernourished and desperately poor people as they possibly can. His contention that population growth is a great resource and not a contributing factor in poverty is completely contrary to any sane economic theory. Forget about economic theory, it violates common sense: If you have more babies it will be harder to feed them.

Of course, the pope doesn't care about ending poverty. That has never been a big concern of the Catholic Church. Much more important to the Church than spiritual matters, be they individual or for all mankind, is simply perpetuating their own bloated and decadent empire. This is why they take such offense—as did the Archbishop Cañizares—to the further erosion of Catholic power in secular countries like Spain, a country that for centuries was under direct control of the Church. For the first time in the recorded history of mankind, the power of religion is fading in many parts of the world. For the average person, life in these secular areas of the globe is better than it has ever been. There is more democracy; health care is available to everyone; there is greater equality as far as race, gender, sexual orientation; and we enjoy greater freedoms of thought and speech. All of this has been accomplished without religion and much of it in spite of the actions of one church or another. These societies are healthier than they have ever been.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Stereotyping For Dummies

Stereotyping For Dummies

Over dinner last week we were trying to define what constitutes the essence of the cooking of various nations. I said that, for me, Mexican cooking is cilantro and lime. Mediterranean cooking is olive oil, onion, garlic, and tomato. One of my friends mentioned that, because it has so many regional cuisines, Spain does not really have any one thing that defines its national cooking. He read somewhere that patatas bravas, roughly-cut fried potatoes, are the national dish because they are the one thing that you find everywhere in Spain. The next day another friend told me that they don't eat patatas bravas in Murcia. So much for that discussion.

From this failed attempt to define the cuisine of the countries of the world, I have been thinking about what constitutes the character or a nation. Some people would probably call this national stereotyping of generalizing. This is probably true but only if you apply it on a person-to-person basis.

Before the football match (Valencia-Brugge) last week I was sitting at a table with a group of Belgians. They were all speaking Spanish. Some of them were Flemish and a couple others were of the French-speaking variety of Belgian so I suppose Spanish was the best lingua franca since neither side had to give in and speak the other Belgian language. It certainly was the best language for me because Flemish sounds to me like English spoken backwards. I actually used that joke at the table and it got a big laugh—although maybe only with the French Belgians. In Belgium, The Netherlands, and Scandinavia it seems part of the national character is to be conversant in several languages. Even if this thing about learning languages is almost a requirement, it's very admirable.

I think that native English (and Spanish) speakers are at a sharp disadvantage when learning another language because so much of the world's business is conducted in English (and Spanish). I am not making any excuses. I will put my Spanish up against anyone who has spent a similar amount of time in a Spanish-speaking country. This doesn't include other Romance language speakers as they are at a huge advantage. I watched a movie in Italian the other day and I understood at least about 30%, if not more. My French is quite a bit better these days even though I haven't done anything much to improve it other than learn Spanish. I notice than Belgians, Dutch, and Scandinavians who move to Spain all speak Spanish rather well. What other choice do they have? No one here speaks Dutch or Flemish so if that's all you speak you've got a tough row to hoe, as we say in English.

I'll move on to sum up the Spanish character. I have talked before about the Spanish penchant for only speaking their own language, so I don't need to cover that here. Along with the other Mediterranean countries, I would say that the Spanish are defined by their food and their almost neurotic obsession with cooking, eating, and buying food. I would guess than when you get arrested in Spain you have the right to remain silent, and the right to a sandwich with a beer or a glass of wine. Just about any activity you can think of has some association with food in Spain. They have even had to amend the warning not to go swimming for 20 minutes after eating to ten minutes—they can't go 20 minutes without eating something. I would lump Italians, Greeks, and the French into this stereotype.

I think that Australians, Americans, Irish, and Brits are much more alike than we are different. We are much more homogeneous than the people who make up the 22 some countries of the Spanish world. If I had to name one thing that we all have in common it would be a tendency to drink too much. I went to a party this past weekend that had quite a few native English speakers in attendance. It was at a rather expensive place which may have stifled the usual amount of beer consumption of this crowd, but another common trait reared up. When you get a bunch of English speakers together—drunk or otherwise but mostly on the drunk side—chances are rock music will break out. This particular party had a musical theme, mind you, with instruments, amplifiers, and microphones. It's just that rock music has made up such a huge part of our shared culture that it is never very far beneath the surface in almost any situation.

After a few beers it didn't take much encouraging to get the entire bar to break out with a rendition of Wonderwall by Oasis. This was followed by songs from The Beatles, The Clash, The Stranglers, and others. Just about all the Spanish people in attendance were singing along as well. Come to think of it, I have never been to a party at a Spanish home that didn't have some sort of live music. I also have lots of non-Belgian friends who speak other languages. I certainly like food as much as any person native to the Mediterranean. It looks like I have deconstructed my own little theory on nationalities in a matter of a few paragraphs.

I will stand behind my earlier statement that native English speakers drink too much.