Chinese Invasion

The older I get the more amazed I become of refreshing ideas that come from the most unlikely quarters. Ideas that never occur to oneself, leaving one much to chew on.

The other day I formed a group of acquaintances which was thrown together by circumstances not of one’s choice. I tried my best to be as polite as I could, and I am certain that the rest of the people strove to do the same. Somehow along the way the topic turned to the trend of some Spanish primary schools to incorporate Chinese classes. The most outstanding theory of this came from a lawyer.

“Chinese is the future”, he started out conventionally, “they are everywhere. Bazaars, boutiques, restaurants. I would get my son to learn Chinese. If you want to do real big business, you do it with the Chinese. And see how they flood into Spain, there are so many Chinese adoptions. In 20 years, everybody in Spain will need to speak Chinese! Maybe there will be no Spaniards anymore!”

I think in order to practise law, as this man does, you have to go through university education. But of course, I am too old fashioned, I thought you did learn at least some values and logical reasoning there in the ivory tower, although it is not the best place to learn common sense. He must be the finest example of one who graduated without any of the above. I held my tongue, since peer pressure forbid me to disagree in a situation that I considered did not worth it, especially when everybody gave him three cheers with more supporting arguments. I am not sorry that I have not the pleasure to enjoy his company again, so far.

The Bologna Process in Bolivia

Last year there was a lot of fuss about the Bologna Process. I confess that I did not spend too much time on it, and I came from a different educational system and I did not see anything objectionable about the idea. In fact, I see it as beneficial to the students, both their learning process and their mobility. I understand that their protest had more to do with the local educational system than the Bologna Process, an old grudge that jumped at the opportunity to manifest itself.

I will leave the debate of ideas. I am more interested in anecdotes and what really happens on the “physical” level. The students occupied some buildings and at some point, some violence was involved. I myself passed by the University of Barcelona at Gran Vía, a beautiful place, the entrance hall was decorated with statues of Luis Vives, Alfonso el Sabio, Isidoro, etc. It was one of the camping sites of the students. It acquired a musty smell which was not incongruous with the age of the building. There were sofas and chairs, which I assume was the platform where the students debated their ideology and what university was supposed to be, the very idea of knowledge and the community of scholars. At the entrance, beside the first column, was a recycle bin, full to the brim, with Estrella Damn bottles. I do agree that alcohol does help with increasing one’s eloquence, especially if your audience is under the effect of the same substance. I do not want to go on describing upstairs, the actual sleeping spot and cooking place, with unwashed dishes and murky water and tents that leant on paintings, loans from Prado.

I mentioned anecdote, and here I will record one.

One professor observed that his son was going to join a march against the Bologna Process and, anxious to know more about their objections, he asked what his son’s understanding of the proposed changes was. And his son replied: “Well, it’s something about Bolivia, no?”

Since then, I looked with reservation the impressive turnout at the demonstrations.

To the determined mind

It is fascinating how our mind plays tricks on us sometimes. Once an idea has set foot and developed there, it is difficult to let it go. But our mind is also very creative, so instead of letting an idea go, it bounces it a little, squeezes it a bit here and there, and voilà! Now it fits perfectly!

Yes, it is a bit abstract to talk like this. So, let’s have an example.

It happened some years ago, when I was a fresh Ph.D. Any new holder to this coveted title will tell you the state of wreckage one is in in the first few months, especially when the future resembles only too well the description of limbo. To change this, of course one desperately uses all the connections one has. At the end, I was granted an interview to discuss the possibility of joining a project as a postdoc. This is by no means an indignant way of passing 2 or 3 years until you find something more permanent, and for you to “mature” in every sense of the word.

I read intensely the subject of the project, recited a brushed up summary of my thesis, indulged in repeating, aloud, the selling points of my CV. I went to bed early, wore my lucky underwear, put on my best shirt, arrived half an hour early, mesmerised myself as to how agreeable I could be.

It was very unfortunate that the professor in question got the idea from somebody that I was still working on my thesis. It must be from one of my contact’s contact’s contact’s contacts, although my contact’s contact’s contact with whom I talked to knew otherwise, and she already put a word in for me with the professor. After this had been cleared up, his mind started to reshape his idea. So, his proposal for me was to get a predoctoral scholarship for a new doctoral thesis in the new university, and he started making phone calls. When he saw my impassive face, he realised that I was either hard of hearing or I did not understand his complicated thoughts, so he wrote everything down for me. I do not think he ever conceived the possibility that I thought I was in a nightmare of the eternal return.

For a young researcher or a young faculty member, it is not advisable to confront the wisdom of the old, because the academic circle is so small that you never know if one day you do not get your tenure because of a little gesture from a ghost that rises from its grave in an inopportune moment.

I was very complaisant, and promised to consider all possibilities. When I think about this, it always surprises me how that idea can occur to such an intelligent mind. The only satisfactory explanation I can give to myself is the tenacity of an idea and the persistence that a researcher is used to, a quality that enables one to spend years to pursue a subject. Many times he/she must be familiar with frustrations when he/she hits a dead end, but things can always be changed a little to fit in. Soon, this ability becomes a part of the personality that one becomes versatile, or, error free.

We are sorry!

Recently I ordered a book from The Book Depository, a great online bookshop with free worldwide delivery. Usually the book comes very fast, but this one did not arrive. After two weeks I wrote them to inquire. I got an email message beginning with “We are sorry…”, that the book may have got lost, and they promised to send me another one right away, which I got within a week.

Before I could convey my emotion when reading the message I have to tell something about myself. I was a complainer, a trait that I do not complement myself with. I used to complain about everything, rude services, unsatisfactory treatments, delayed orders, and I was terribly spoiled, until I came to Spain. With all the vigour I set out as usual, letters, messages, face to face confrontations, I got no answer, no apology, instead I was taken to be the responsible party. Continuous trials make the expert doubt herself. So, at the end, I put down my sword and surrendered. Finally I am humbled.

When I opened that email message and read “We are sorry…”, tears filled my eyes! I was so moved that I felt like a legitimate customer again. Of course I went ahead and bought another book from them. I know when one gets older one becomes more and more sentimental. I still have on my bedside table an alarm clock over 20 years old, a courtesy from the Times Magazine when I commented something about their delivery service.

Several years ago I witnessed an appalling incident, which, to my sensitive mind, has left an impression. So, I better write about it so as to get it out of my system.

It happened in a bookshop quite well-known in Barcelona, or, one would say, one that houses academic books for the perusal of university students and professors just across the street; an important street, I may add, that has only one way traffic where motorcyclists love to speed through from the top to the bottom. But unfortunately, recent successive constructions have deprived them of this pleasure. I beg my reader’s understanding for not naming it. I try my best not to get into any type of unpleasantness when I can help it.

Back to my story.

I was there leisurely browsing books. A woman came in, or I should say, an Asian woman, because that is of significance. She asked about a book that she had ordered: Los viajes de Sir John Mandeville. As a foreigner, I could understand her perfectly, well, maybe it was because she spoke perfect English for the author’s name. Now, she repeated more than twice to the staff, but the woman did not seem to have a clue. Then, unfortunately, the young staff member who I bet had not seen too much of the world, said: “I don’t understand Japanese!” That threw the customer into a rage. She demanded the staff member’s name and said she was going to complain. This was later used as an excuse to say that that poor customer abused her. Amelia, for that was the staff member’s name, said she was maltreated and was appealing to the people present as witnesses.

The customer disappeared and later came out with another person, who told her that her book was at the cashier waiting for her, which was beside where Amelia sat. I would have personally left the place long ago, but the customer was obviously very interested in the book and was going to buy it. While she was waiting, Amelia spoke in French with the other staff member asking about the book, and was told that it was ordered in the morning by phone, which should be Amelia’s business, because she sat under the sign “reservation”. She said in French that she was not told. Well, I witnessed that she did not use the computer that was in front of her. It was very unsettling that if Amelia could speak French, why would “Mandeville”, correctly pronounced, be a problem for her?

Poor customer, can you imagine if she can understand French also? I hope she did not. If not, she would have been thinking what I was thinking, which is very disheartening, especially when it happens in a bookshop, an intellectually stimulating place.

I bet it is only one of the incidents that occurred there, since some time before that I saw one early morning a malicious sign on their glass door calling them a name that means a person who holds, according to Webster, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race”, and warning the unscrupulous customers to be more scrupulous. I am afraid I was persuaded after being a direct witness, and have not set foot there again.

I disagree with myself!

When I was attending one most important yearly congress of the humanities and social sciences in a Northern country, I came across a very refreshing way of promoting oneself.

In one of the presentations, the speaker summed up several opinions from well-known experts on a specific topic and pointed out their insufficiency, after which she read us a dangerously long quote expressing similar viewpoints, and just when my mind started to wander, the speaker told us:

“Well, this is what I wrote two years ago, and I disagree!”

That was expertly done, I have to admit. And it caused the result that she aimed at, laughter, without applause though. I wonder how many times she had practised in front of the mirror, or in front of her unfortunate family.

The last one that made an impression on me, besides this strange inability to put the slides right, or the normal fidgeting of one’s materials, or going over time, was a presentation in which the speaker kept on reminding you that there were more details about the topic in the book that she was about to publish. I consider the audience very generous by asking at the end what the title of her book was, which she withheld during her presentation. That could be a dangerous strategy, since you may not be asked at all. She gambled right though.

But do not mistake me, they are perfectly likeable people when you talk to them personally, and they do not always talk about themselves.

My eye and Betty Martin

In his collection of essays on Spain, Don Fernando, Mr Maugham throws his reader a question, which I am sure that any student familiar with the Spanish language would like to accept the challenge and give it a go:

“‘My eye and Betty Martin’. (Not many people know the Spanish for that)”.

The idiom basically means nonsense, and I read that it is the same as the other expression “all my eye”. There are several attempts at explaining the origin of this saying, which I am not going to reproduce and those who are interested can do a google search.

Any thoughts?