Amanda Bennett: A Year in Zaragoza, Spain

Madrid: Lunes 9 a Viernes 13 | Friday November 24, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 12:53 pm

How sad to wake up on the last day with the heavy knowledge of departure! We dragged our feet walking down to breakfast, but picked up the pace a little bit after one last visit to Starbucks. Our final visit was to the Palacio Real, a huge palace where the king of Spain still resides occasionally but now mainly used to host guests and ceremonies. The tour only covered about 8 of the thousands of rooms, but was enough of a glance to give us an idea of the incredible splendor of the Spanish royal court. Each room had a differently designed chandelier, impressive wallpaper, carpeting, and woodwork, and lovely furniture. My favorite rooms were those lit by the grand glass chandeliers, leading me to believe that if the added electric lights bordering the rooms were turned off and the chandeliers lit, the palace would be magical – the rooms were designed, after all, to be lit from the interior.

The King of Spain doesn’t have any real duties. In the “On the Crown” section of the Constitution, he is explicitly relived from “all responsibilities”, and in any situation in which he “names” people to political positions, he literally does just that: announces their names by reading from the paper sent to him by the Senate or Congress, the houses which have actually chosen who will fill the positions. His charge is to maintain the palaces and represent Spain internationally. King Juan Carlos, the current leader, oversaw the Spanish transition to democracy in the 1970s after the death of Franco, and is generally liked by the people – in fact he is much more popular than President Zapatero – although a lot of the public are beginning to find the position of king rather useless and obsolete.

The metro’s speed and directions from some helpful madrileños permitted those of us who wanted to visit El Prado or El Thyssen to reach the museum district with a couple of hours left before we met to leave for the train station. I hadn’t yet been to the Museo del Thyssen, which had a special exhibit called “Lágrimas de Eros”. The exhibit had made the newspaper even in Zaragoza and was shown in the television news as well, so I really couldn’t miss it. I loved the exhibit and left with just enough time to catch the subway back to the hotel, where we descended to the metro once again but for the last time.

Faster than a speeding bullet, we arrived back in Zaragoza, just in time to start the weekend! However, my exciting plans to meet a friend who had gone to Salamanca with another group fizzled when we both missed each other’s calls because we’d fallen asleep right after dinner, exhausted from the wonderful mini-viajes.


Museo Reina Sofía: Favorites November 20, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 9:00 am

"Gran Profeta" by Pablo Gargallo - Gargallo is from Zaragoza, and there is a wonderful museum here in the city dedicated only to his sculptures.

"Figura Tumbada" by Francis Bacon

"Mujer del Abanico" by Laurens

"La Ventana Abierta" by Juan Gris

"Guernica" by Pablo Picasso (Guernica is a city in Spain that was bombed during the Civil War, resulting in complete destruction and the deaths of many innocent people. Picasso has a lot of works about war, and they all do a wonderful job of showing the terror and destruction.)

"Grito Nº 7" by Antonio Saura

"Agricola Head" by Smith

"Desnudos en la Playa" by Togores

"Siurana" by Joan Miró


Madrid: Lunes 9 hasta Viernes 13 | Thursday

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 8:26 am

Luckily the Senate building was close enough to the hotel that we could walk. It was our first stop on Thursday morning, and the fresh air woke us up. In Spanish, the word for government, “gobierno”, doesn’t refer to the entire political body that governs the nation, but only the executive branch, consisting of the President (chosen from the senate by the senate) and his ministers (what we might call his “administration”, as in “the Bush administration”). The whole shebang is called “el Estado”, the State. The Senate is one of the two houses in the legislative branch, the other being the House of Representatives. Representatives at least (we haven’t studied the Senate in Political Sciences yet) are voted for party, not by name. If I wanted to support, for example, the Partido Social Obrero de España (PSOE), I would go into the voting booth and mark “PSOE”, not “Juan Riviera” or “Luisa Goya”. Say the number of seats in the Congress available for my autonomous community is 30. Before the election, the party would have drawn up a list of 30 candidates for spots as representatives. If the party then wins 50% of the vote, the first 15 candidates on the list will become representatives.

The daily routine of a senator is actually quite busy, filled with meetings and conferences, and every week or two a grand meeting with the President and ministers to find out first hand through questions and answers about what the executive branch is up to.

After the Senate, we boarded the metro for a 30-minute ride to the outskirts of Madrid where the publication offices of El Mundo, probably the second or third most read newspaper in Spain, are located, along with other publications such as Marca (a sports newspaper which is the most-read Spanish language publication) and Económica (an economics weekly). Right in front of the place where the tour began was a glass office where a meeting of the editorial board was convened, deciding the layout and choosing the articles for the day’s paper. A few journalists were at their desks, but most were absent, out doing field work. The work on the day’s newspaper begins at 8 or 9 in the morning and doesn’t end until the wee hours of the night, or more technically the morning of the next day. The building also sported an audio recording room, mainly for purposes of El Mundo’s website, and a radio station. I was surprised that everyone works so close together – I figured that the Scroll had such small quarters simply because we were stuck in a basement, but even in El Mundo everyone works side-by-side, and each paper is a true team effort.

After we left the offices, we boarded the metro to head back downtown where we dispersed throughout the city for lunch. I found a great vegetarian restaurant, and although I once again ate alone due to lack of interest from the others in a vegetarian place, the food was so good that it kept me company. Before a meeting of the political science class at 5 o’clock, I had time to stop back at El Prado to visit the wing I’d run out of time for the day before.

Our class met in a Moroccan tea place, where we all ordered different types of tea which each came in their own individual silver teapot with a small glass cup. We discussed a future project, a poll to discover the public opinion of politics in Spain (what a huge goal for a small class in a tiny school!), and brainstormed some hypothesis: the people feel disconnected because they don’t know the names of their representatives, young people are uninterested and uninformed because they aren’t educated about the political system, the media portrays politics as a dishonorable and lazy vocation…grand sweeping statements to hopefully be disproved by a public survey at some point in the future.

As we drank the last drops of our tea and adjourned the meeting, I asked Antonio (the political science teacher) the way to the Museo de la Reina Sofía, Madrid’s more modern art museum. He walked me and a few other interested students almost all the way there, where I stayed until the closing time of 9. A couple of the exhibits were a bit too abstract for me to enjoy, but I loved all the Picasso, his masterpiece “Guernica”, and the Joan Miró and Dalí as well. The building was gorgeously designed, with glass elevators looking out over a plaza and a giant glass library. I will definitely have to spend some more time exploring the museum, library, and café when I return to Madrid.

Looking forward to the crepes and cheese waiting in the hotel room, I decided to walk back to the hotel, detouring slightly to walk through the Plaza Mayor, which was lovely lit up at night. I arrived at the hotel around 10-ish, but not before stopping at a wonderful looking panadería I’d passed many times and finally had a moment to stop in to. The loaves were sold by the whole, half, or quarter, with each loaf being probably a foot and a bit more in diameter. As soon as I saw the sign for sourdough rye, I knew what I was getting – the first sourdough I’d found in Spain, and by far the best bread I’d eaten yet! I managed to resist consuming the whole glorious piece right there and saved the majority of it to pair with cheese for lunch the next day.

With a great pressure to finish off the eggs, I made another few batches of crepes for my roommates and friends, and we popped some popcorn as a wonderfully American accompaniment.


My Favorites: The Prado November 19, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 2:24 pm

"Jardín de las Delicias" by El Bosco

“Fantasy Sobre Fausto”, by Mariano Fortuny

"La Vereda" by Carlos de Haes (all his landscapes are great!)

"Reclining Lady" by Raimundo de Madrazo


Madrid: Lunes 9 hasta Viernes 13 | Wednesday Part II

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 10:47 am

With the free time after visiting the Tribunal Supremo, I headed off with a classmate to go to the Prado, Spain’s (arguably) most famous museum. El Prado houses such masterpieces as Velázquez’s “Las meninas” (which adorns the cover of our art history book), Goya’s “El 3 de Mayo de 1808 en Madrid” (the cover image of one of our history books), El Bosco’s “El Jardín de las delicias” (a print of which hangs on the wall in our art classroom), and El Greco’s self-portrait. I was astonished and awed by them all, although I had to go back the next day as well.

We left the museum exhausted and looking for lunch. Since I was the only one who didn’t have a hankering for a ham sandwich, I took my book and went off in search of some good vegetarian food. The general trick is to take one of the side streets that run perpendicular to the main street until you reach the street one block over that runs parallel to the main street: here you will find the restaurants, cafés, and bakeries. I was lucky enough to encounter an Indian restaurant, where I ordered sambar (lentil and vegetables) and naan to go. I exchanged my euros for the bag of food so hot I was worried the plastic would melt, and found a bench to lunch on. Much to my liking, downtown Madrid is filled with trees and parks, so finding a green spot to eat in wasn’t too difficult.

The view from the spot I found for lunch...

We then met at a metro station to go visit the Defensor del Pueblo, what would be called an “ombudsman” in English. I am too tired to rant about the position right now, but I promise I’ll elaborate later. We arrived, entered the building, and were led by a sub-secretary to a presentation room. “Now I won’t be boring,” he said as he powered up a PowerPoint. Recalling the never-ending stream of sleep-inducing powerpoints of the worst school meetings, I could feel my eyelids getting heavy (the scarce amounts of sleep we’d been getting certainly didn’t help!). Then the sub-secretary began to read us the slides. Let’s just say that the Defensor del Pueblo visit was not the most exciting part of the trip to Madrid.

However, we were soon set free and headed back to the hotel to get ready for the theatre, as a group of us had decided to go see a comedy that night. Stopping at a café on the way, I tried a “café caribeño”…coffee with melted chocolate and whipped cream on top. The light and sweet whipped cream gave way to the slightly dark chocolate which melted into the intense black coffee…the perfect drink, and with enough substance (I was just about to write “substanciality”…I feel like my English is going downhill!) to hold me over until tortellini and crepes after the play.

The show, called “El Pisito (The Little Apartment),” set in the 50s or 60s, was about a couple who, in order to get an apartment to live in, stage a marriage of the boyfriend with the old woman who now owns the perfect apartment…and then they must wait. A few of the jokes went over our heads, but there was a great line about how strange Americans are (in part because they make popcorn)…my group was the only one in the theatre laughing!

We walked back through the madrileño night to our hotel, where flour, sugar packets from Starbucks, soy milk, butter pats from breakfast, and eggs awaited me. The working conditions in the little room kitchen were less-than-desirable, but I managed to churn out a steady stream of hot crepes, not perfect but as good as they could be considering the lack of a whisk, spatula, and a bowl larger than that for cereal. I had wanted to throw in grated lemon rind, but first of all I didn’t have a grater, and second of all, the store didn’t sell single lemons (one frustrating thing for me about Spain is that way too many fruits and vegetables come in plastic, at least at the supermarkets).

the hotel kitchen...note the employment of the base part of a citrus juicer as a mixing bowl...

Now that our room was very popular due to the smell of crepes and nutella wafting down the halls, it was more difficult to enforce our BYOF (bring your own filling) rule, and we ended up with at least half, maybe ¾, of the group in own room, which was luckily rather large… After the crepes ran out, though, the majority of the group left, and we were left knowing who our true friends were…and then, full and content, we went to sleep.


Madrid: Lunes 9 hasta Viernes 13 | Wednesday Part 1 November 17, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 9:53 am

After another breakfast at the hotel of croissants, cheese, and yogurt and honey, and a quick stop at Starbucks (I, however, managed to resist shelling out another $6 for chai!), we walked to the Palacio de la Justicia, where the Tribunal Supremo – the Spanish equivalent of the Spanish Supreme Court – is located. The building, a monastery converted to a court when the Republic confiscated all the Catholic Church’s property, was gorgeous, of course, but the politics of the system were not so pretty. The good aspect of our confusion was lots of questions for the tour guide, so that we seemed to be a rather “listo” group.

I’ll do my best to explain it. When Spain transitioned to a democracy in 1975, they wrote a new constitution. The country already had an established judicial system, but it was certainly not just. One of the greatest concerns of the new leaders was keeping the three branches of power very separate and evading giving too much power to any few people. Hence, the President (Head only of the Executive branch, which consists of him and the ministers; but who in a rather paradoxical move is chosen from among the representatives in the Congress) rarely attends the ceremonial opening of the judicial session each fall, a separation of powers. And the Tribunal Supremo is divided into 5 sections, each dealing with exclusively civil, penal, social, administrative, or military cases. Any cases dealing with the Constitution go to the Tribunal Constitucional (the Constitutional Court), the other component of the judicial branch. All in all, there are 91 magistrates, which I would equivocate with Supreme Court Justices except with a lot less power, in the Tribunal Supremo, united under a President chosen from among them, who meets with a cabinet composed of the youngest and oldest member from each section. Five judges hear each case, and each judge only works in the court once a week. The magistrates are chosen by the Consejo General del Poder Judicial, composed of lawyers and judges with at least 15 years of experience and “recognized competency”, 12 of which are magistrates, 4 appointed by Congress, and 4 by the Senate.

A disclosure: I realize that I have no right to criticize the Spanish political system. I still don’t know all the details of the system or the history that lead to it, nor am I a Spanish citizen. I’m not proposing that the American system is perfect (although in many cases I do think it is better, but I am biased as an American); regardless, please forgive my criticism, which I will hopefully be able to revise as the year goes on and I learn much more.

Personally, this system appears extremely bureaucratic and complicated to me, excessively so. Spain is a country the size of Texas. There are municipal courts, provincial courts, and courts for each autonomous community, three layers before reaching the Tribunal Supremo (however, certain cases, like those of politicians, go straight to the Tribunal Supremo, always). The constitution is incredibly detailed, 80 pages long in an approximately 4 by 6 inch booklet, plus another 50 pages detailing how the Tribunal Constitucional should work, and full throughout of cross-references to laws augmenting it. This leads to my first question: how do enough cases find enough ambiguity to reach the highest court in the country and occupy 91 judges.

My second question deals with the major divisions. Having a separate court to deal with cases related to the Constitution is strange to me, most likely simply because the main job of the Supreme Court in the United States is to interpret the ambiguities of the constitution, much more vague than that of Spain. What about cases that involve more than just one of the sections (I can’t give examples because I’m still not sure what exactly each one involves)? A firm believer in interdisciplinary approaches, to me such divisions seem at worst counterproductive and at best useless, as something like a law seems incredibly dependent upon the law as a whole. The tour guide said that the divisions permit each judge to specialize in a specific part of the law, which is a reasonable argument but doesn’t solve the terribly bureaucratic aspect of having 91 judges plus another court for the constitution.

Something that bothered me and appeared rather strange due to the emphasis of divisions and separation was the frequency of religious symbolism in the Palacio. The main meeting room was adorned with a larger-than-life-sized statue of a crucified Jesus. On the desk of the incredibly gorgeous office of the president of the court was another Christ statue – and the list goes on. Regarding separation of Church and State, the Spanish constitution guarantees religious freedom, and also says that no one will be obligated to declare their religion, beliefs, or ideology, and the no confession will have the character of the state. The constitution also says that “the public powers will keep in mind the religious beliefs of the Spanish society and maintain the following relations of cooperation with the Catholic Church and the other religions,” with a reference to a law signed in the Vatican that isn’t included in my booklet. However, as far as I can see, the separation of Church and State clause that sparks so much conflict in the United States is absent. Spain has always had a very religious character: the pagan Romans, who later converted to Catholicism; the Adrian Visigoths, who later converted to Catholicism; the Muslim Arabs, who were later conquered by the Catholics; the Church as a power which helped crush the Republic in the Civil War; Franco’s maintenance of Catholicism as the national religion and a very present power throughout his dictatorship…

In any case, the tour was very interesting and the Judicial Palace was filled with beautiful rooms and lovely works of art. Afterward, we had a few hours of free time before meeting to go see the Defensor del Pueblo (just wait until I criticize him!).


Madrid: Lunes 9 hasta Viernes 13 | Tuesday November 16, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 2:26 pm

Toledo is a historic city in the autonomous community of Castilla La Mancha, and only a 30-minute AVE ride from Madrid. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit! We returned to the train station and arrived at the gorgeous neo-mudéjar station in Toledo an incredibly short ride later. We boarded a small tourist bus and ascended the road to the center of the city, separated by a river (which by American standards is more of a large stream) and on raised ground. Perfectly defensible and gorgeous to approach from afar, we passed the scarce remnants of the Roman aqueducts and entered the city via a lovely stone arch bridge. We visited the chapel where one of El Greco’s most famous paintings hangs, a Sefardí Jewish synagogue, and a cathedral. The cathedral was by far the most gorgeous one I’ve seen so far, thanks to an incredible relief/sculpture from floor to ceiling that decorates one interior end. With angels at all angles and a true sense of movement and divinity, this is one spectacular work of art, and I looked up at it until my neck hurt and even then I couldn’t stop!

The Sefardies are Spanish Jews, called so because of their name for the Iberian Peninsula, Sefarao. With the final conquest of Spain by the Catholics in 1492, they were expelled and many resettled in Eastern Europe. Since Spain had been politically instable for hundreds of years, most Sefardis expected the expulsion to be temporary, and with the next king they would come back; hence, they locked up their houses, took their keys with them, and waited. However, they were never invited back (at least not in the near future). Our tour guide told us that many Sefardis still have their keys as a testament to Spain’s sometimes cruel history, and speak a Spanish of the 15th century style, a truer Spanish except for the Greek and Italian influence imparted by their relocation. Today in the Heraldo, there was a brief article about a Sefardí community which settled in a small Eastern European town. In 1892, a party of Spanish government officials and journalists went to visit the town, in part reparation, in part curiosity at these people who spoke a quaint Spanish and still held keys to houses in Toledo or Zaragoza now long gone. In 1992, however, the 500 year anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews, a delegation wasn’t sent because the town was no longer there. During World War II, all the Sefardies in the town, the vast majority of its inhabitants, had been sent to Auschwitz, and only a tiny handful survived. Primo Levi mentions them in one of his books, describing their “melodious” Spanish. One of the many sad stories in Spanish history…

To lighten up the mood, the amiable tour guide recommended a café during a break between buildings, so a few friends and I decided to check it out. A beautiful empanada-type pastry called my name: a vegetable filling with a hand-cup lattice pastry top. Delicious! We all ate lunch together at a run-of-the-mill restaurant, good but not vegetarian oriented to say the least. However, they did give their best efforts and gave me a decent ratatouille and great dessert.

After a couple hours of free time to explore the city, we bid goodbye to Toledo and AVE-ed it back to Madrid, where we were without obligations until curfew. We had spotted a tempting chocolate shop the day before, so I headed back with a couple of friends to buy some interesting bars. I ended up with a trio of small bars: tiramisu white chocolate (nice warm spices), slightly-dark chocolate spiced with black pepper, and dark chocolate with crystallized ginger. A heavenly sinful dinner…

Somehow a rumor had gotten started that I was going to make crepes (I can’t remember how it all began, but I didn’t want to pass down the opportunity). However, although I have made vegan crepes, I needed to make the traditional ones this time…but did not have a recipe. Knowing that any general dessert cookbook would have a crepe recipe, we found a bookstore so that I could furtively copy down the recipe. Next stop was a grocery store to search for eggs, soymilk, and flour (much harder than it sounds – I still don’t understand how Spanish grocery stores are organized, but many U.S. ones evade me as well). I couldn’t resist the tortellini, so I bought some and a small carton of tomato sauce to accompany it. I’d brought oregano and cinnamon from Zaragoza, so I didn’t have to worry about spices for either dish.

Exhausted from the late night before, and definitely too tired to make crepes, we didn’t let that prevent another good conversation, but we did decide to get an at least slightly decent amount of sleep before the long (but exciting) day ahead of us.