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Archive for October, 2009

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.

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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.

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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?

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I got my three degrees from three different countries. I understand that in every culture there are idiosyncrasies that for an outsider they will always seem foreign. Here is one of them.

I find that it is quite common for parents to accompany their children to register in Spanish universities. The parents do the talking and the negotiations. So, when there is something wrong with the process, the administration has the parents to deal with, which sometimes can end in unpleasant situations, such as personal insults and threats of lawsuits. I have not looked if there are also parent associations in the universities, like the ones in primary and secondary schools.

As an aside, I wonder if parents also go to vote with their children. After all, most of the students are over 18.

Once I heard an anecdote. A student was summoned to see his professor.

“Jorge, I am afraid you are not doing very well. I think maybe we should talk about the reasons sometimes next week”.

“Can I bring my father?” Jorge asked.

“Yes”, said the professor, “and I’ll bring mine”.

Of course one can assume that Jorge wanted to bring his father because there was a family problem which led to his poor performance, but, as the reader can see, that would be missing the point.

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A “Dialogue of the physicians” is published by Pedro Mexia in 1547. Like other dialogues written at that period, it is full of quotes from ancient texts and coloured by rhetorical qualities. However, it is interesting to note that the main argument in this dialogue is about science vs experience. It is used to  support or to deny the legitimacy of Medicine as a profession.

The dialogue is held mainly  between two characters, Gaspar and Bernardo, when they are paying a visit to a mutual sick friend. Gaspar vouches for, what is basically a very good idea, that people should cure each other with their experiences, instead of going to a doctor, who makes the profession a monopoly. A tradition it is, he argues, that in the villages the wise woman/man cures the inhabitants with their experiences that have been passed on for generations; and indeed, people who live in the countryside are more healthy and live longer than the city kids, who go to the doctors for consultation.

Bernardo, on his part, defends the necessity of the medical profession, because of the emergence of new illnesses, and not everybody can know all the tricks of all trades, and that is precisely the reason why you ask a plumber to fix your drain.
Of course it is not a new topic, not even at Mexia’s time. His arguments have been exploited already by Celsus, Erasmus and Vives. He can claim originality (which is not his intention to claim in the first place) only in the fact that he writes in the vulgar tongue, that is, Castilian.

For this part of the argument, Bernardo wins in the dialogue. And as one can see, a doctor is a highly respected profession to our present day.

This is a topic of interest because as one can notice when surfing the web how many people share their experiences and suggest cures. There are forums for everything: how to detox your body, how to cure hair loss, how to stop using shampoo, how to maintain a healthy diet, etc. Certainly, the internet has made the sharing of experience more user friendly. Once again, one says to oneself: how little has the world changed! It seems that at the end Gaspar has won the day.

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