Archive for the ‘"Variations on some Spanish themes"’ Category

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.


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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.

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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.

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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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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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