Frank O. Gehry Architect – Royal or Rebel?

Today, Spain bestows its highest cultural honour, el Premio Príncipe de Asturias de las Artes, on Canadian-born, American architect Frank Gehry. The awards, which began in 1981 at the behest of the then Prince of Asturias (Spain’s title for royal heir) and now king, Felipe VI, has numerous categories (Arts, Letters, Social Sciences, Sports, etc.), and has been awarded in the past to Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, Leonard Cohen, and Margaret Atwood. Little known outside of Spain, the annual arts Nobel here comes with €50,000 and a gala ceremony in Oviedo to the delight of the Spanish glitterati.

PdeA FrankGehrry

Yesterday, however, Mr Gehry was guest speaker at a so-called “debate” between him and acclaimed Spanish architect Rafael Moneo (premio winner in 2012), entitled “Arquitectura: el futuro, en construcción” in Gijón. I’m not sure why it was called a debate (since no one debated), but about 300 or so were delighted to hear Mr Gehry’s ideas about branding and architecture, and in particular about his Spanish creations: the Guggenheim in Bilbao and his recent Barcelona Fish.

GehryUsandThem GehryTheFish

After waiting about 2 hours in a make-shift line, the first 200 of us plebs were ushered into the airport-hangar space (room is not quite right) – appropriate it would seem for a debate (or conversation) between two architects – and seated in the peanut gallery outside a reserved (reservado) comfy-chair area for the hundred or so more well-connected dignitaries, who mostly arrived a few minutes before the start. One didn’t have to see the debaters although one could sneak a peek if you craned your neck enough. The inelegant seating arrangements did make me think of John Lennon’s remark at The Prince of Wales Theatre Royal Variety show before the Beatles’ final Twist and Shout number: “For those of you in the cheap seats I’d like ya to clap your hands to this one; the rest of you can just rattle your jewelry!”

The odd seating arrangements immediately made me think about accessibility in buildings, wondering if I would hear any debate about who makes buildings and for whom, and so I was pleased when Mr Gehry referred to what an architectural student should be doing these days to get a leg up in the biz: “You have to be in charge or you will be marginalized.” No doubt, good advice to his fellow all-stars more than budding young architects, but architecture as he further elegantly précised is a “process to create shapes and demystify them for construction.” Five years of architectural school would seem long after that.

His main motivation for making buildings he stated at the outset: “If someone calls me to do a building, if I like them, I accept.” He has no agent or publicist although he acknowledged that today’s young architects do. Well, not the four young architects I met in line, but I suppose he meant the older young Calatrava-like superstars. At 85 years old, he’s the master of the modern architect pantheon, who still prefers making models “to involve his team” than working from a computer.

GehryModel1 GehryModel2

To be sure, architecture today is about money and dealing with developers, although Mr Gehry noted that “When people find out Bilbao was only $80 million, they don’t believe it.” Compared to his $207-million Walt Disney Concert Hall in his hometown Los Angeles the Guggenheim in Bilbao is a steal. I don’t know what Mr Moneo’s Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels cost, which Mr Gehry noted he enjoyed seeing in his strolls around LA, and jokingly recalled that his pal had won the commission in a competition against him. One wonders what is different between a Roman Catholic cathedral and a Walt Disney concert hall – not the content it might seem.

GuggenheimBilbao LACath

As the conversation continued, it was obvious that Mr Gehry makes iconic buildings with marketing and branding in mind. Of the conservative city organizers in Bilbao, he said that they originally wanted something like the Sidney Opera House to usher in “a reawakening of a city” and that “Bilbao’s business model was amazing.” Fortunately, Bilbao got Mr Gehry’s impressive Cubist ship on the shores of the Nervion estuary, made of 33,000 pieces of gold-coloured, dimpled titanium. I can’t think of another modern building that has rebranded a city as much as the Gehry-Guggenheim, changing Bilbao’s industrial past into a cultural future, and ushering in the new age of city-branding. One travels to Bilbao to see Gehry’s art. Any city would kill for such tourism.

If the conversation had ended there, however, one might think Mr Gehry was just another royal – making buildings for money and the establishment, who doesn’t care much about what goes into a building or who uses it. Fortunately, at the end he briefly discussed his new project, an Obama-led initiative for impoverished schools called “Turnaround,” where artists like himself and Elton John talk to poor students, and in Gehry’s case get them to build cities with blocks in the classroom, encouraging a much-needed lateral thinking found lacking in their lives. The program has begun in 10 elementary pilot schools, he added, all with less than a 5-percent graduation rate with hopes of expanding to 100. Rebellious thinking indeed. As Mr Gehry noted about such new-age education methods, it’s “my latest fun thing.”

And then, he was whisked off without questions into the waiting black cars not more than ten metres from the airport-hangar-esque hall. It was like a presidential motorcade. All that was missing was the red carpet. Or at least I think he was – it was hard to see.

I wish we could all be Frank Gehry, superstar. Unfortunately, we can’t.

Frank Gehry, Sobre el terreno (From the ground up), October 24 to January 12, Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial, Universidad Laboral, Gijón.

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Celtic Connections: Ireland, Scotland, northern Spain, …

The Celts are said to have originated in central Europe 14,000 years ago in modern-day Austria (Hallstatt), migrating westward from the seventh century BC onwards. Today, most people of Celtic origin are found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, France, and Spain, as well as in the immigrant populations of the U. S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, who left their homelands during the expansion of the British Empire.

The C is hard as in [K]elt, although it has been transformed in the U. S. to a softer sound as in [S]elt, hence the basketball team the Boston Celtics or [S]eltics. That doesn’t make them any less ferocious.

What characterizes a Celt? I always thought a stocky, broad-shouldered, warrior type, and judging from the best rugby teams which all come from Celtic (or Celtic-stocked) countries the description seems apt. Fortunately, warriors no longer die on the battlefield in the most war-like of sports. Think Wayne Rooney or Brendon Gleeson with a beard. For a softer look, think Lindsay Lohan or Cheryl Cole.

Wayne Brendan Lindsay Cheryl

But not all are red and proud. In The Celts in Wales, Sarah Woodbury describes two types: 1) stocky and dark and 2) tall and blonde, which may distinguish the more insular Celts of Britain and Ireland, who were pushed north into Scotland and Ireland and west into Wales and Cornwall by the Romans, and their continental counterparts in France and Spain, whose genetic makeup is more diverse after centuries of intermingling. Pockets of Celtic blood are found on the continent, most notably in western France (Brittany) and northern Spain (Galicia and Asturias).

Genetic tests have shown common Celtic bloodlines and DNA across national boundaries. As Marie McKeown notes, “the latest research into both British and Irish DNA suggests that people on the two islands have much genetically in common. Males in both islands have a strong predominance of Haplogroup 1 gene, meaning that most of us … are descended from the same Spanish stone age settlers.” That helps explain the Spanish connection, mostly ignored when one thinks of Celts.

Iceland has one of the smallest gene pools in the world – primarily a Nordic-Irish mix of about 300,000 people in a country barely more than a millennium old, first inhabited by Vikings who stopped off in Ireland on their way to Greenland and Newfoundland taking their pick of Irish slaves and serfs (a.k.a. thralls) with them. Hence the predominance of Iron Age Thors and pixie-like maidens on the streets of Reykjavik.

One also thinks of music and of course rain, which possibly explains the Celtic love of music, spurned on by convivial indoor get-togethers (a.k.a. sessions) to escape the colder and wetter climes of north-western Europe. There are few better ways to spend a misty winter evening than by a corner fire with a beer and a song. For those who can’t sing, the pints help loosen the vocal chords.

In Dublin, one can find a session most nights, from the famed O’Donoghues on Baggot Street, home of Luke Kelly, Ronny Drew, and the Dubliners, to regular fiddlers in The Cobblestone and Hughes. “Trad” music abounds throughout Ireland, including Leo’s Tavern near Crolly in County Donegal, noted as “the birthplace of Enya, Clannad, and Moya Brennan.” Clannad did the music for Robin of Sherwood – Robin Hood is an inspiring legend, but alas he was no Celtic warrior. Traditional Irish dancing is also popular and now world-renowned thanks to a 1994 Eurovision Interval Act called Riverdance, a thumping Celtic phenomenon starring Irish-Americans Jean Butler and Michael Flatley.

The Dubliners RiverDance

In Scotland, the cèilidh (or caile) is central to Celtic fun and a regular feature after a Highland Games competition. I had the honour of competing in one such games on the Isle of Arran off the Ayrshire coast in western Scotland, managing to toss a 80-kg, 20-foot caber almost 18 inches. Fortunately, I was better at dancing, learned in part through rural Canadian folk or square dancing – there’s nothing like the sweat of a rigorous dosey-doe or a grand chain.

The popular Highland Games features piping, drumming, Scottish athletics, and other staples of Celtic culture. One of the highlights of the Edinburgh Festival is the “military tattoo” with a wide range of pipe and drum bands from around the world, many in tartan clan colours (Check out Slanj Kilts for the best selection of traditional and modern tartan dress).

In Wales, the Eisteddfod pays homage to Welsh language and culture and their proud Celtic past. The week-long “sitting” features music, poetry, and readings in Welsh to honour the bard. On a cycling trip from Dublin to Port Merrion, I was surprised to be addressed in Welsh at my first stop. It’s a working language in much of northern Wales. Iechyd Da (cheers in Welsh) a.k.a. slainte in Irish and slanj in Scottish!

Of course, the bagpipe especially marks a Celtic heritage, a national instrument in Scotland (if such things exist), as Scottish as haggis or thistle. In Ireland, they’re called the uilleann pipes and in northern Spain gaita (gaitero is piper). They are all played slightly differently and, of course, the piper’s hat is also unique. Marching while playing is popular in Scotland (left), northern Ireland, and northern Spain (right).

Scottishpiper Asturpiper

A love of stories and fun (or craic as it’s known in Ireland) is also a Celtic trait, though one needn’t go as far as Judge John M. Woolsey, who in his landmark 1933 ruling that permited the sale of Ulysses in the United States after it was banned for supposed pornographic intent, said “In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of [Joyce’s] characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.” Makes it sound like the Irish maypole was code for an orgy, although it must be noted that the courser words in Ulysses were of Anglo-Saxon origin.

There are numerous pan-Celtic myths, many transplanted from older Norse, Roman, or Greek variations. The hero Lugh features prominently – in Irish, Lugh Lámhfhada (Lugh of the Long Arm) and in Welsh, Lleu Llaw Gyffes (Lleu of the Skillful Hand) – and is associated with the god Mercury. The most important Celtic goddess is Brigid (the exalted one), associated with sacred flames and healing wells. Later Christian traditions were superimposed on Celtic traditions, where Brigid has morphed into St. Brigid of Kildare.

The four seasons are called Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain, starting not on the astronomical markers of spring, summer, autumn, and winter as we know them, but at the midpoints; thus, Imbolc (February 1), Beltane (May 1), Lughnasadh (August 1), and Samhain (November 1). The Celtic mid-season dates may result from a more temperate climate and explain the greater importance of celebrations on May 1 (mid-point between March 21 and June 21) and Halloween (the day before Samhain). Imbolc is also connected to St. Brigid, whose feast day is February 1.

CelticCross BeltaneFireFest

The Beltaine fire festival in Edinburgh atop Calton Hill is a bucket-list night out, marking the Celtic beginning of summer on May 1, and includes midnight bonfires and fertility-rights re-enactments with the May Queen, with plenty of lusty audience participation. Dancing at Lughnasa, a play by Derry writer Brian Friel (and made into a movie starring Meryl Streep), takes place around the Celtic harvest festival on August 1. A mix of Celtic, Christian, and pagan culture is put through the paces.

Spain has a lot of catching up to popularise its Celtic past, but it’s clear from the music that there is a common heritage – Asturian and Galician bagpipes and dress show a strong Celtic connection. As does the love of fun, drink, and singing. And there’s always el Celta de Vigo, though the C here is a th sound as in [Th]elta de Vigo. But as noted in “Galicia and Asturias: Celtic Nations with Celtic Heritage!” it’s not just language that makes one a Celt!

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Renewable Energy in Spain: How the wind and the sun are changing our world

Everyone knows the windmills of La Mancha from Don Quixote and that the south of Spain is one of the sunniest and hottest parts of Europe, drawing record numbers of tourists each year. But did you know that Spain is a world leader in wind and solar power generation? Poised to make renewable energy a cornerstone of a revived economy, Spain now boasts wind as its number one power producer (20.9%) ahead of nuclear (20.8%) and hydro (14.4%). In fact, last year Spain was the first country ever to use wind as its primary energy source. That’s good news for sustainable energy and good news for the environment.

LaManchaWindmills GaliciaWindFarm

One advantage of renewable energies such as wind and sun is that they don’t depend on the availability of fossil fuels (oil and gas), which are dwindling resources and the cause of increased conflict around the world. Furthermore, the fuel is limitless with zero carbon emissions, allowing countries to reach their Kyoto Protocol commitments – as an EU member, Spain has targeted for a 20% reduction in emissions by 2020. What’s more, the energy is locally produced and easily scalable, not prone to the problems of one-size-fits-all mega projects.

Wind Power

According to the 2013 Global Wind Energy Council Report, Spain ranks fourth with 7.2% of installed wind power capacity in the world (23 GW of a total 318 GW), behind China (28.7%), the U.S. (19.2%), and Germany (10.8%). Spain accounts for more than 20% of installed wind power capacity in Europe (of a total 121 GW), second only to Germany (34 GW).

For those unfamiliar with energy numbers, a single turbine generates about 2 MW and can power the electrical needs of about 600 homes. That’s almost 7 million homes that can be powered by a nationally generated 23 GW (or 23,000 MW) from about 11,500 wind turbines dotted across the Spanish countryside, enough to power all the homes in Madrid, Barcelona, and the whole of Andalucía combined (roughly, 16 million people).

Of course, at 250 tons and 100 m high each, with three carbon-fibre, 43-metre-long rotary blades, some say wind turbines detract from the natural landscape and are noisy, but compared to the pollution from oil, gas, and coal plants and the ongoing dangers of nuclear, one wonders if that’s a small price to pay to meet our modern energy demands. Increased efficiency in new turbines helps reduce the noise, while in Spain most wind farms are out of the way and in some places even enhance the landscape. One needs only drive through the hills of southern Galicia to Oporto on the newly built E1 highway to see the power and the beauty of the majestic white giants. Don Quixote would be proud.

Solar Power (PV and CSP)

They say that one hour of sun shining on the earth can power the world’s energy needs for a year.* In Spain, one thing is for certain – sun, where in the south it is sunny for 200 days of the year with temperatures ranging as high as 40 degrees in August. Indeed, Spain has sun and lots of it.

To make sun into electricity, there are two main technologies: solar cells (photovoltaics) and thermal (concentrated solar power), both of which are becoming more viable every year. In the 1960s, photovoltaics powered early communication satellites, while today they account for about 3% of total power generation in Europe (almost 8% in Italy).

AbengoaPV SolarTower

The science of turning sunlight into electricity is well known using doped silicon semiconductors that excite electrons to generate current, the opposite of turning electricity into light as in today’s ubiquitous LEDs, found in anything from television and computer screens to traffic lights. What’s more, the costs continue to decrease: in the 1970s, photovoltaics produced electricity at $30/watt while today’s best Chinese-made PV cells are down to $1.5/watt.

According to The Global Market for Photovoltaics 2014-2018, “Europe remains the world’s leading region in terms of cumulative installed PV capacity, with 81.5 GW as of 2013.” Despite a slow-down in the economy from 2008 and “dissuasive tariffs for grid connection,” Spain has the third largest installed capacity in Europe (5.3 GW) behind Germany (35.7 GW) and Italy (17.9 GW), and the sixth largest in the world at 3.8%. Total installed capacity in Europe was 11 GW in 2013 (only 120 MW in Spain) and is expected to continue growing although at reduced rates. Between 7 and 17 GW are expected to be added each year to the European grid.

Unfortunately, investment in solar has declined in Spain after the government halted subsidies in July, 2013, worried by an accumulated €30-billion tariff deficit since 2001. Short-sighted one might say given that “more than one million Germans have installed solar panels on their roofs enough to provide close to 50 percent of the nation’s power,” as noted by David Crane and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., in a 2012 New York Times article, primarily as the result of its 2000 renewable-energy law that promised guaranteed prices and priority access to power grids.

Concentrated solar power plants, however, are on the rise, especially in Spain, using either parabolic troughs or thousands of “heliostats” to focus the sun on a water tower to generate steam, which is then used as in a conventional plant to turn a turbine and create electricity. The working temperatures range from 250°C to 1,000°C. The parabolic trough system generates 1.8 GW worldwide with solar tower plants adding 70 MW more. The problem of intermittent sun and down time at night has been addressed by storing heat in tanks of synthetic oil or molten salt to give a more constant supply. The world’s first commercial solar plant with heat storage was in Gaudix, east of Granada.

If you drive through central Spain, you will see many solar farms. In fact, according to IRENA’s Renewable Energy Technologies: Cost Analysis Series (Concentrating Solar Power), “Spain is now the largest producer of CSP electricity [in the world] and there are several very large CSP plants planned or under construction in the United States and North Africa.” As of the start of 2012, Spain had 1.3 GW of operating capacity, compared to the U.S. with 520 MW and North Africa with 75 MW.

· Spanish Wind 23 GW    ·    Spanish PV 5.3 GW    ·    Spanish CSP 1.3 GW
· World Wind 318 GW    ·    World PV 139 GW    ·    World CSP 1.8 GW

Spanish Renewable Companies

In Spain, wind power also means jobs, with a number of companies leading the way in global turbine construction and wind farm development. Gamesa (30 GW, 12 GW in Spain) was the sixth largest wind power company in the world by 2012 market share (4.6%), manufacturing a large range of turbines and building wind farms around the world. Other manufacturers and developers include Acciona Energy (164 wind farms, 4.5 GW), Alstom (a.k.a. Ecotècnia, 200 wind farms, 5.0 GW), Iberdrola, and Anelion.

The world’s largest steel company, Arcelor Mittal, is involved in the manufacturing of wind turbines at its Gijón plant in Asturias, providing steel plates to the main manufacturers, such as Gamesa, Vestas Eólica, Ecotècnia, Acciona, and Enercon. According to their design specs, “an 80 metre high tower requires about 174 tonnes of steel.”

As for solar, Abengoa Solar, Quintas Energy, BP solar, and Aleo Solar provide construction or management services.

The future?

For the first time, the five top sources of newly installed electricity in Europe were all renewable energies: wind, photovoltaics, hydro, biomass, and thermosolar. Good for Spain and the EU, which in 2009 agreed to collectively generate 20% of its energy from green sources by 2020 (compared to 9% by 2015 in the U.S.).

Given the dire warnings from the I.P.C.C. about rising temperatures in the last decade and their report that “To meet the 2-degree goal, annual spending on fossil fuel plants must drop by $30 billion a year by 2030, while annual expenditure on renewables, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage must rise by $147 billion” it seems that wind and sun are sound investments.

What’s not to like if the fuel is free? Imagine a country run entirely on renewable energy? Imagine a clean, safe, energy-sufficient world? Imagine modern Spain.

* The Earth receives about 120,000 TW of solar radiation at the upper atmosphere, of which about 30% is reflected back to space, while the rest is absorbed by clouds, oceans, and land masses.
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If You’re Coming to Gijón

In 2007, El País reported the best places to live in Spain (las ciudades españolas donde mejor se vive), naming Gijón the third-best behind Pamplona and Bilbao. On the flip side (donde peor se vive) was Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Madrid, and Vigo. In 2012 The Huffington Post affirmed Gijón’s exhalted status (behind Pamplona and Vitoria). Of course, such polls are highly subjective and are prone to small-sampling bias, but it’s comforting that someone else thinks you live somewhere amazing. Especially now that I’m an official citizen (#288448)!

m_je BilbaoPintxo BellaVista

Okay, Gijón doesn’t have the running of the bulls, a week-long piss-up with more than a few young Hemmingways testing their bravado in the famous San Fermin madness. Nor the coolest-looking, Frank Geary-designed museum in Europe just minutes from the best pintxos going. But we do have a coast to die for with sumptuous scenic walks and a rugged interior that’s as green and untouched as Ireland. Oh yeah, it’s mostly sunny and the food is great. And of course the ciudadanos here are as friendly as they get.

Esc04 Esc19

If you’re coming to Gijón, you’ll enjoy every second, though apologies in advance for the football team, mired in the second division after being relegated 2 years ago. Desafortunadamente, tika-taka never made it this far north.

Getting to Gijón

Most visitors from abroad come by plane. There are direct flights to the main Asturias airport (in Avilés, a 20 minute drive to Gijón or Oviedo) from Madrid, Barcelona, London, Paris, and Lisbon. There are also direct flights from most European destinations to Santander, a 2-hour coastal drive east along the E-70. You can rent a car in the airport. Goldcar is the most economical (no, I am not an agent.)

Everything is well signed on a mostly brand spanking new highway (although some of the E-70 is still being built near Torrelavega). Stop in Ribadasella for a meal and look round one of the finer Asturian playas. There’s a church at the top of the hill for a nice walk and a panoramic view of the expansive el mar Cantábrico (Bay of Biscay).

Las Fiestas

It’s true, the Spanish know how to party, or fiesta as it’s called here, although they haven’t got round yet to using fiesta as a verb (festejar is as close as it gets). There is a nice rhyme to fiesta and siesta, but one doesn’t have to follow the other.

Here are some of the more popular fiestas if you want to time your trip, but there’s always something cooking, 72 such this week. For all the fiestas to fill your soul, check out Asturias de Fiestas. There are also festivals for various saints throughout the year. Check your Catholic calendar for the one nearest you. In Gijón, the main saints are Begoña (October 11, but also celebrated in sunnier August with fireworks), Carmen (July 16), and Juan (June 24).

Semana Negra (early July): A book fair and carnival with talks and readings from Spanish-language thrillers. Hopefully, someday The House of Words will be translated (there is one Spanish review already – thanks, Fernando!).

Festival de la Sidra (mid July): Every day is sidra day in Asturias, but the official festival is in Nava, home of the Museo de la Sidra. Not quite Pamplona, but then no one gets gouged either.

Fiesta de la Sidra Natural (end of August): Yes, there’s two, but then Asturias is the cider capital of the world. This one is on Playa Poniente with a group pour for the Guinness Book of Records (8,061 simultaneous pouring people in 2013).

Out and about in Gijón

My favourite thing to do in Gijón are the coastal walks. Miles and miles and miles as far as the eye can see. You can walk from Eduardo Chillida sculpture’s Elogio del Horizonte in Cimadevilla to el Mirador de la Providencia, about two hours. Along the way, take in a Roman bath museum, any number of stairs to the main San Lorenzo beach (22 escaleras in total), and all the sidra and pinchos you can drink and eat, while losing yourself in the magic of the sea. Let your imagination walk with you as you gaze out from the end of the world. For a million great Gijón pics, check out Dreams & Notes.

Easy Day trips

PozoSanLuis LaPuerta

I suggest a trip to Ribadesella, Covadonga, and La Cueva de Tito Bustillo. Ribadesella has a great mile-long beach, Covadonga is where the Reconquista began and is situated on top of the Picos de Europa, while Tito Bustillo is home to some of the oldest cave drawings in the world. On par with other northern European sites such as Altamira, the Tito Bustillo Cave has an excellent permanent exhibition centre. I recommend a guided tour of the cave.

Nava is home to the Asturian cider museum for those who like the fermented apple. There are 22 different varieties and over 100 different sidras. I still haven’t tasted a tenth yet, but there’s no hurry. It’s only half an hour south-east of Gijón, through the rolling hills of the Asturian interior.

Langreo is in the heart of mining country. Mining was once the leading industry here with more than 50,000 miners working in 20 or so pozos (pits), though there is only about 2,000 working there now. I recommend a trip to Ecomuseo Minero: Valle de Samuño for an exquisite insight into a miner’s life complete with train ride into a mine. At the very least, you’ll see how easy life today is compared to the Thirties. The information centre is in the town of La Nueva just outside of Langreo. There’s a guided tour on the hour, but everything is in Spanish.

Avilés is a quaint town with a lovely city centre, nice for a walk or a meal. Check out the Oscar Neimeyer Centre, which has various exhibits and talks throughout the year.

SantaCruzPlaya BelenSantiago

Longer excursions

Gijón is perfectly situated on the north coast of Spain between the popular tourist destinations of Bilbao and Santiago de Compostela. Both are easily reached by car along the I-70 (three or four hour’s drive). I recommend a night or two in either before your return to Gijón. Along the way east, you can continue to San Sebastián or even Bordeaux if you feel adventurous. Along the way west you can continue to A Coruña (and the Torre de Hércules at the end of Spain!).

On the way, check out the fishing village of Figueras at the Asturian-Galician border for a picturesque meal. An excellent hotel in Santiago is Hotel San Francisco, a converted convent just minutes from the cathedral. In A Coruña, there’s the divine Hotel Portocobo – make sure to get a room facing the ocean. For the very adventurous, continue on to Porto and the Ribera del Duero. Especially for the wine-minded. The drive through the Galician hills on the Spanish-Portuguese border is heaven.

Eating out in Gijón

I noted a few restaurants in a previous caracola, Top 10 things to know in Gijón (out and about so far), but here’s a couple more you shouldn’t miss.

  • Restaurante Bellavista: Perfectly situated on the coast with great patios. Try a menú del día while watching the bathing throngs.
  • El Sueve: The beef doesn’t get any better.
  • And as before, El Casino (elegant and affordable city centre dining), Vor Bier & Bar (best imported beers and best burger), and La Farola (every day is paella day).


There are plenty of great hotels and pensions to stay in and around Gijón. A special favourite is Fancornio Rural, with great country village life. All the peace and tranquillity you could ever want.

I hope you enjoy!

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Basilmania and monarquía: Or how to make pesto sauce without any pomp or circumstance

Basil is so named for basileus meaning “king” in Greek, supposedly because it’s meant to be the king of the herbs. If Leo can be king of the jungle, I guess Basil can be king of the herb garden. Word Wizard states that Saint Basil the Great was also a 4th-century bishop who was one of the fathers of the early Christian church. He “improved the liturgy, organized monastic institutions on basis of work, charitable services, and communal life, instead of asceticism.”

Basil Pesto

An all-round good guy, although I think Sybil from Fawlty Towers might have a few objections about so canonizing her bumbling husband Basil. Regularly at each other throats, Sybil had no use for his unkempt and showy manner, or his neediness. Not unlike it seems our own garden basil as I debate how little or how much water and attention it needs. And not unlike John Cleese, for best results I have decided to give my basil its space.

There are too many great John Cleese’s Basil bits to list, but here’s one involving Basil and Manuel, where “on those trays” gets mangled as “uno dos tres.” But for me, the best thing about basil is what you can make from it – pesto sauce – which only needs a few leaves to get that unmistakably glorious taste. And in Spain, it’s no surprise that basil (albahaca) does best with a little oil (aceite). Well, actually, a lot of oil. (Note, for a perfect Spanish sounding, albahaca is more like albaca, one of the few words I’ve come across here where a letter is not pronounced in Spanish and is instead gingerly ignored).

Pesto Ingredients

7 basil leaves 7 hojas de albahaca
50 g pine nuts 50 g de piñones
50 g grated parmesan cheese 50 g de queso paremesano rallado
1 clove of garlic 1 diente de ajo (literally a tooth!)
8 spoonfuls of extra virgin olive oil 8 cucharadas de aceite de oliva virgen
½ small spoonful of salt ½ cucharaditas de sal

Pesto Recipe

Ground the basil leaves with mortar and pestle. Add the pine nuts and then garlic and grind together. Add the cheese and oil and stir. Add the salt. You can also use a food processor to mix the ingredients, but it’s not every day you can use a mortar and pestle. Lightly add to your favourite pasta.

It’s really that simple, and of course you don’t need your own herb garden to make pesto, any basil plant will do, which you can keep in a kitchen window. It may need some attention, but it’s worth it. My only recommendation: go light on the pesto. No need for too much of a good thing.

I have been living on store-bought pesto for decades (always served with fresh steamed vegetables) and swear by its simplicity and wonder. But making basil yourself, you really taste the ingredients, which I have to admit were a bit of a mystery to me before we made our own.

As for whether we need a king and queen of the garden, or a king and queen at all (nudge nudge wink wink, know what I mean, know what I mean*), I’m quite happy to do without. No need for all that pomp and circumstance or indeed so much wasted money. I’ll take my basil and pesto, king of the herb garden and sauces, all without the messy inbreeding. ¡Al ataque! ¡Que aproveche!

* Ken and Barbie were crowned King and Queen de la salsa this week.
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Life Long Learning

This past year I have had great fun learning the ropes to my new life in Gijón. From how sidra is poured (more experimentation needed) to ensuring I don’t order cow’s brains for lunch. From the meaning of “no te preocupes” (don’t worry) to trying to put the right em-PHA-sis on the right SYL-lab-les in the many and varied English-sounding Spanish words (definitely more work needed there). I’ve stopped paying with large denomination bills so I don’t have to understand spoken amounts, but there is still more work to do when I have to write David Villa’s name on a napkin after five minutes of fruitless pronunciation with a local (Da-beeth Be-ya as I should by now know). Happily, most misunderstandings are fixed with an easy smile.

I have also had great fun working as a teacher, both with a few private students looking to get ahead in the new lingua franca English-world and at a local high school, Emilio Alarcos, with ten fabulously interesting teachers (mis hermanas fabulosas). I don’t know how they do it day in and day out, and I thank them for showing me that enthusiasm and kindness are the best tools in any teacher’s bag. I hope that my students learned as much as I did!

My best advice to any student is simple, as in the joke about the tourist in New York asking directions on how to get to Carnegie Hall: “Practice, practice, practice.” Doubly so for language learning. And so, a caracola on a few battle-tested activities, gleaned from a year of language learning in the teaching trenches.

I won’t intellectualize how one teaches or learns. No Piaget, although I recommend his ever useful ideas, especially for physics students learning to become formal operative thinkers. No objectives or assessment techniques. No grammar (or very little). For me, the proof is in the doing and the speaking. Add a pinch of knowledge (very wide ranging for the language teacher) and a bucket or two of enthusiasm, and you have a recipe for a happy class. Sabrina De Vita said it best: “Passion is the key element for happiness in life, and even more necessary if you are in the teaching field.”

Of course, there are lots of great activities for students, but here are just a few that worked for me this year. My thanks to Mariola, Asun, Belén, Brosi, Elena, Marisa, Marta, Nuria, Paloma, and Pilar for all their help and great ideas. It’s been lots of fun working with you and revisiting my own youth. Muchas gracias a todos mis hermanas.

1. Spelling Bee

Spelling Bees are all the rage in the United States, where students spell anything from gladiolus to knaidel. As a formal competition, it can be too much in the classroom, so I recommend not making it a prize winner’s game. There will be tears. Instead, help each student if and when they get stuck. It’s always good to make learning a game, but not to go overboard.

Use a vocabulary list to suit the appropriate class level. Get students to come to the board in turns and write the word after you say it. Ask them to say it, spell it, and use it in a sentence (e.g., Classroom, C L A S S R O O M, The students are sitting in the classroom). At the same time, the rest of the class can write the words in their workbooks. Invite other students to use the word in another sentence.

Sample vocabulary list (on acting): make-up, setting, narrator, stage directions, character, role, part, dialogue, script, play, costumes, audience, express, props, perform, director, stage, acts, rehearse, cast, scenes

2. Guessing Numbers Game

Numbers are everyone’s last language refuge. We had a Dutch tour guide on a trip to La Gomera this past New Year’s, who could speak ten languages (at least five fluently) and yet he still counted us off in Dutch on our way in and out of the bus. Of course, counting is essential, which reminds me of the old statistics joke: There are three kinds of people in the world, those who can count and those who can’t.

Tell the class you are thinking of a number between 1 and 100 (write it down on a sheet of paper if you need to remember it). Ask students to guess the number. Write each guess on the board and indicate whether your number is higher or lower (H or L). Their excitement will grow as they get close. After the number is guessed, ask a student to count the guesses (cardinal and ordinal: e.g., seven guesses, the seventh guess). Repeat or increase the range: 1-100, 1-1,000, 1-1,000,000, …. Most students will guess randomly, but become more strategic as they get close. You can explain how guessing in the middle (bisecting) is the best strategy, e.g., for the number 64 in a 1-100 range: 50H­, 75L, 62H­, 68L, 65L, 63H­, 64!!! Seven guesses, the seventh guess.

3. The Geography Game

Steven Wright joked: “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it.” With Google Maps, the world is even smaller. Fortunately, there are lots of activities to help learn about our big and small world.

Using a list of questions about different countries (see sample below), ask different students to read a sentence aloud and then locate the country on the classroom map (or Google Maps or an atlas).

1. Bonjour! In Canada, there are two official languages, French and _________?

2. Guten Tag. What is the capital of Germany?

3. Ni hao. In which country would you find the Yellow River?

Here are a few fun and useful interactive geography games too.

4. The Continuous Present Animal Picture Zoo

This is a great free-form picture activity to get students talking about everything and anything, as well as practising basic grammar without them knowing it. The first one I did was with animals, using 20 photos from the Dublin zoo (giraffe, gorilla, lion, …).

02Giraffe1 05Gorilla2 07Lion2

Show the first picture (giraffe). Ask a student, 1) What is this animal? (giraffe), 2) What is the giraffe doing? (The giraffe is eating), 3) What is the giraffe eating? (The giraffe is eating bark), …. All students should write each sentence in their workbook. The grammar practice is the present continuous, i.e., is eating (you can easily change to past continuous, i.e., was eating). To practise the comparative, you can also ask, Is the giraffe pretty?, Is the giraffe prettier than the gorilla?, Is the giraffe the prettiest animal in the zoo? (or gorilla: scary, scarier, scariest; hippo: ugly, uglier, ugliest, …). At the end of the picture zoo (I recommend 20 or so), ask the students to write their own sentences about any animals they like and have them read their sentences aloud.

This activity can be used with different subject photos, such as cities (geography), landmarks (history), sports, food, extreme weather (course vocabulary). A nice add-on is to ask a student to describe an associated movie that they like in 50 words or less, e.g., King Kong (New York), Ratatouille (Paris), Forrest Gump (at the Lincoln Memorial), Gladiator (The Colliseum).


5. Quizzes

Divide the class into four- or five-player teams. Get them to choose a team name and write out each name in a table on the board. Read out rounds of 10 questions on any appropriate level topic (e.g., Geography Round 1, Q1 What is the capital of Portugal?). Ask each team to write the answers on a piece of paper (you can supply prepared lined sheets). At the end of each round, each team passes their answer sheets to another team for marking. Ask different students to read a question aloud (projected on the board from a Word document) and then ask for their answer. Give the right answer if needed and ask each team to mark the score (0 or 1) and then total the round at the end. After each round, update the team standings on the board.

This is an excellent listening and reading activity, as well as improving their general knowledge and course vocabulary. Discussion between students should always be in English!

Three Sample Questions

1. How many autonomous communities are there in Spain?

2. Who is the president of Argentina?

3. The 3 ships of Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón) were the Niña, the Pinta, and which other ship?

Check out some Physics, Geography, Math, Arts, History, Letters quizzes for question ideas.

6. Ahora Caigo Translation

Basically, Who am I or Hangman. Great for an activity in a pinch. Ask a student to read the Spanish and then translate. Ask them if they know the answer. If they are stumped, turn it into a game of Hangman. Pasapalabra* is another game where students think of a word (e.g., a country) starting with a different letter in alphabetic order.

George BushTorquimada

7. Headline Blanks

This is a great fill-in-the-blank word game. Use Powerpoint to show a headline with a missing word and get students to guess the missing word. For example:

Government plans to give Spanish _____ to new citizens (Mar 29, 2013)

King on “right track” after latest ___ surgery (Nov 22, 2013)

Flamenco world ______ “genius” Paco de Lucia (Feb 27, 2014)

After they have guessed each word** or you have shown them the answer, get different students to read the associated article. My articles were all from the English-language version of El Pais.

8. Role Play (weather report, restaurant, …)

Everyone’s favourite language activity is role play, getting students to prepare a script and then act it out (with or without the script). The basics are obvious, but here are a couple of fun suggestions.

1. Weather report. Discuss a list of weather words and give out a weather map with general terms. Divide the class into groups of four or five and let them choose a country. Have them prepare a script, and ask one of them to act as the TV weather person. Use Google Maps on the projector for the chosen country in the background.

2. Restaurant. Prepare two different menus on a double-sided hand-out or get them to devise and create their own. Divide the class into groups of three or four. Let each group prepare a script with one of them acting as the waiter and the others as customers.

* They should call it Pazapalabra in honour of Paz Herrera, the winningest ever contestant, who finally won €1,310,000 last night after 5 months.
** tests, hip, mourns
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Spring has most definitely sprung in sunny Spain

I can remember a snowfall as late as May 5 in Toronto. That was 20 years ago, and I made a snowman on the day although it melted the very next day. Back then, no one knew much about global warming or polar vortices, but the snow just kept coming, well within the margins of statistical possibility in a country where it can and often does snow between October and May – 8 frigid months inclusive. It’s a life more suited for penguins although to paraphrase Matthew (and my dad), in Canada many are cold but few are frozen.

In Gijón, the only snow is in the nearby Picos de Europa, still visible on the mountain tops as late as mid May. And yet it’s a bubbly 20 degrees down on the beach or even an occasional 25. Light fills the Asturian sky from 7 in the morning to almost 10 at night. No need to hibernate with a crate of Rioja or Ribera del Duero. Spring has most definitely sprung in sunny Spain and the sidrerías are filling up. I love it. Asturian spring is like a Canadian or Irish summer.

Flowers1 Flowers2

Flowers3 HerbGraden

Flowers abound, especially wild daisies and dandylions that make the countryside and coastal walks here into a sea of white and yellow. I transplanted some wild daisies into a pot and they are the happiest, easiest plant I’ve ever had. The store-bought daisies are a little more temperamental, although I have started dead-heading them more and tending to their obvious needs a little better. Happily they have perked up and are starting to smile again. Mis margaritas y sus sonrisas – son fabulosas, es una maravilla. Our roses are in heaven.

We also started an herb garden because we wanted fresh herbs for cooking, but also to help with mi vocabulario, also, ahem, growing it would seem. We now have rosemary (romero), mint (menta), chives (cebollino), basil (albahaca), parsley (perejil), santolina, ruta or rue (ruda), thyme (tomillo), and lavender (lavanda), which we planted in a metre-by-half-metre raised bed in our back yard. The box stores here (Leroy Merlin, Alcampo, and La Cooperativa) are great for the soil, plants, rocks, and accessories, although I recommend you enter with a list and no credit card. It only took a weekend all told, although the blister on my thumb may take another week to heal.

We also have camomilas, petunias, liatris, and sweet alison (aliso), which we grew from seed, and are now poking their beautiful heads out and flowering with delight. The aliso is a beautiful white carpet of joy. It isn’t rocket science – plant, put out in sun, and add water (daily). These ones were all started in a semillero and transplanted as they sprouted to bigger macetas (pots). The aliso is so smiley and so simply conceived from semillero to small maceta to bigger maceta in under two weeks that I can only credit the creator. God is alive and well and living in abundance in the gardens and scenic walks around Gijón.

Ivy Tree

It is no wonder Spain is an agriculture power, when a born-and-raised city slicker such as myself can be remade so easily as a master gardener. Spain has the largest total acerage of vineyards in the world, and along with Italy and France produces over half of the world’s wine. Along with Italy and Greece, Spain also produces almost all the olive oil in the world. If the economists don’t spoil the fun by turning dedicated farmers into lazy accountants, Spain should be able to take care of itself well past the coming Armageddon.

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Another Spanish top ten list (Part II): Art Treasures Galore

In the art world, few cities rival Madrid with its three world-class galleries: The Prado, The Reina Sofía, and The Thyssen. There’s the National Gallery in London where one can gaze for free at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières in less than 30 seconds from the steps of Trafalgar Square, the MOMA in New York which while not free is within most budgets and has many of the best French Impressionists, and the exquisite Van Gogh Museum or recently refurbished Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which is full of the best of old and new Dutch Masters including Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch. The Louvre, well, you need the patience of Job to get in.

My favourite of the Spanish painters is Goya. Anyone who changes from court painter to chronicler of the folly of war, the madness of Napoleon, and the excesses of the French Revolution is in a class by himself. Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) started out making paintings for King Carlos III and then King Carlos IV, enjoying the best of patronage and privilege. Somewhere after Napoleon changed from inspired corporal to deranged emperor and invaded Spain in the so-called Peninsular War (1807-1814), Goya grew a conscience. In the end he went a bit crazy exploring the depth of his dreams in a series of eerie Black Paintings that prefigure the Expressionists.

GoyaMay2 GoyaMay3


The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808 are his crowning glories – floor to ceiling paintings that hang side by side in El Prado – depicting two events between Napoleon’s army and the citizens of Madrid. The first shows Madrileños resisting the marauding French troops and the second the resisters being executed the next day by a retaliatory French firing squad. The size of the paintings alone if not the overreaction by the French sends a chill down your spine.

In The Prado, one also finds Goya’s two majas: La maja desnuda (1800) and La maja vestida (1803). La maja desnuda certainly upset a few old church types, and her bold gaze changed the way we look at (and are looked at by) nude portraits. Contrast Goya’s maja with Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus a.k.a. The Toilet of Venus (1651) in London’s National Gallery and her shyer indirect gaze.

More triumphant for Velázquez is his famous Las Meninas (1656) also at the Prado, showing the playful painter off to the left presumably painting the painting itself. Various levels of games within games and competing vantage points including a mirrored king and queen watching their daughter give Las Meninas its enigmatic beauty. Menina means young girl in Portuguese but has become known in Spanish as the maids who attend royalty. Are we all play things for our royal masters?

For the Spanish Master class in war horror, one has only to walk a few blocks from El Prado to The Reina Sofía and Picasso’s Guernica. Again, the sheer size alone is mind-blowing and the horror mesmerizing. Guernica is the pre-eminent modern painting and sadly defines a modern world permanently at war with itself.

As Gijs van Hensbergen wrote in his fascinating Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon: “It has never lost its relevance, nor its magnetic, almost haunting appeal. From its first showing in Paris to its arrival in Spain forty-four years later, it has witnessed and helped to define a century. That its lessons have still not been heeded or learnt makes it as relevant and iconic today as it ever was. Guernica, for better or for worse, more than any other image in history has helped to shape the way that we see.”


Run, don’t walk, to see it. Whether it should be in Madrid or in the Basque Country (say, for example, in the fabulously designed Guggenheim in Bilbao) continues its modern story. There are of course other Picassos to be seen in Madrid. After many years of trying I think I am finally finding a way to appreciate the extraordinary volume of his work.

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was born in Catalonia and has always inspired one to think underneath the simple surface of living, or at least to question our senses. Not easy to do with paint and canvas. He is one of the leading Surrealists along with René Magritte. If your tastes are more classical, there are a few of his pre-Surrealist works on display at The Reina Sofía, including the simple and tranquil Figura en una ventana (1929). An everyday woman looks out an everyday window at a scene of resounding calm.

Oddly, the largest Dalí collection in the world (The Dalí Museum) is in a small St. Petersburg, Florida, suburb. Turn left as you pass over the Gandy Bridge from Tampa just before the girl in the electric pink bikini selling beer on the side of the road. Dalí would be amused. The reason for so many Dalís in St. Petersburg, of all places? In 1942, millionaire mining businessman Albert Morse and his wife Eleanor became fascinated by his work after seeing a retrospective at the Cleveland Museum of Art. A year later they bought their first Dalí – Daddy Longlegs of the Evening, Hope! (1940) – and didn’t stop.

Most think of The Persistence of Memory (1931) or The Disintegration of Persistence of Memory (1954) and the relativistic time-warping clocks when they think of Dalí, but I think of Cruxifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) (1954) as his masterwork. A three-dimensional cross for a three-dimensional Jesus seems more appropriate to understand the mysteries of our ephemeral spiritual world, and suggests more than a drab death. On loan for 20 years in St. Petersburg when I first saw it (while helping to launch small rockets off the Gandy Bridge), Cruxifixion is back at MOMA.

Another favourite is The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (1954), showing a white-robed Columbus about to step triumphantly onto land (presumably modern-day Cuba). For Dalí, this symbolized his own journey to America where he found his fame and fortune, and also pays tribute to a Columbus who at the time was believed to be from Catalonia not Italy. Dalí can be seen as a monk in the foreground.

DaliCruxifixion DaliTheDiscovery

Well, that’s just the tip of the Spanish art iceberg. And I have even gotten past the two main Madrid galleries, included sculpture, film, or architecture, or made it to the twenty-first century. As for the fiesta side of life (number five on my original top-ten list), obviously much more research is needed.

For more on prices, times, and the latest exhibits in the main three Madrid galleries, check out El Prado, The Reina Sofía, and The Thyssen. There is a reduced three-museum ticket available at any of the three.

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Another Spanish top ten list (Part I): Sun, salsa, sangria, …

Everyone’s doing a top ten list these days. They’re easy – no need to maintain a coherent theme, just add the next number and switch to another idea. They don’t require much attention – great for new Tube thinking, the Twitter world, and image cutting and pasting. And they’re full of humorous generalizations and stereotypes, reinforcing the good and the bad we all know and love (or don’t). The only problem is you need ten. In some cases, it’s hard. In Spain, no problem – ten is a minimum.

In the name of green thinking and green wording though, I’ll stick to 5 (and in 2 parts at that). Some have nothing to do with Spain and everything to do with me.

Number 1: The weather. Of course, we all like the weather in Spain: a sunny, balmy, beautiful 30 degrees every day, morning, noon, and night. Unchanged, as we toddle off to the beach in our chanclas (flip-flops) and speedos or chanclas and thongs depending on your gender. Be sure to pack your gafas de sol so you can look without alerting the thought police. Well, that may be the Tourism Spain version of the weather, and certainly was mine before I came to live here, having grown up in Canada and believing everything I had read.

FVsnow GijonPlaya3

Now that I live in Spain (and in northern Spain at that), of course it is not 30 degrees every day, morning, noon, and night. In fact, it snows during the winter in much of Spain. There’s actually amazing skiing, an odd fact which never made it to my holiday brochures. In Gijón, I can see snow on top of the Picos de Europa from December to April, so-called because they were the first site for the marauding mariners on their return home from the newly plundered new world. The wonderful glistening snow tops that also remind me of home.

Yes, it is hot during summer. In fact, unbearably hot in the south, which is why many southern Spaniards leave during agosto and come north. They change their unbearable 40 degree swamp heat coast there for the beautiful unspoilt typically 30 degrees coast here.

But, yes, I love the weather. Love it. Number 1 with a bullet. Nothing tops the gentle rays massaging your skin, better than any 10-station spa, with or without coupon. And for those of the gardening variety, plant it and it will grow. I have never seen so many daisies in love. Me and my daisies. Happy as Larries.

Number 2: Food. What’s not to like? Spaniards know their food, and what’s more know how to eat it: lento, más lento, el más lento (slow, slower, and slowest). One could say lentísimo (como un caracol). The slow food movement was founded by Italian Carlo Petrini in 1986 “to counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions, people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.” He was upset at a MacDonald’s outside the Spanish Steps in Rome. Basically, stemming the 24/7, “I want it all now” rush world that is North America.

But there’s no need for a Spanish slow food movement. The food’s been slow forever. Food here is savoured, enjoyed, and tasted with every bite. I was never big on fast food anyway, but here I eat more slowly, with more appreciation and enjoyment. Thank you Spain. I love your food.

Paella LaMesa

I am also learning more food words, my vocabulary expanding with every deliciously slow bite, my pronunciation improving with every deliciously slow meal: paella (the traditional Spanish rice dish), chorizo (fermented, cured, and smoked sausage), lentejas (lentils, served best in a hot vegetable soup), criollo (more sausage, though closer to the hot dog kind), salchicha, (even more sausage though less refined than chorizo or criollo). And the seafood words: gambas, langostinos, mejillones, pulpo, bacalao, salpicón, … (yum, more yum, and most yum).

I have decided the world would be a happier place if we all talked, argued, and fought less and just ate and drank. Starting with the pincho (as in the Basque hors d’ouvre or pintxo), ingredients, basically every food imaginable. There’s no way Mister Putin and his generals would have invaded Crimea if they had been eating pinchos as part of a regular diet. And there’s no way the CIA would have secretly (or not-so-secretly as it turns out) orchestrated the overthrow of a terrible yet democratically elected Ukrainian government which prompted Mister Putin’s chess move if Mister Obama and his generals had also been eating pinchos (washed down with the local beer of choice). There’s just no need to be so unhappy and belligerent when the stomach is so happy and peaceful.

Number 3: Drink. As for drink, the café con leche is heaven in a taza. No need for Starbucks in Gijón. Ditto a bottle of Rioja Crianza Comportillo at the local Lidl for €2. I would have lifted my nose at box-store wine, but not here. No need to put the security locks on the wine either, it’s as cheap as water. Of course, in Asturias, the preferred drink is sidra, and is really their reformed communion punch. Sidra, vino. It’s like choosing your favourite Beatle – there’s no wrong answer.*

With sidra, of course, part of the fun is in how it’s drunk. Poured high to get the froth properly agitated and shared with your friends (which may explain the seemingly higher frequency of colds). The southern Spaniard may revel in the hot sticky fun of all-night discos, the northern Spaniard knows how to commune with a more sophisticated Bacchus.

See the pictures below from a recent espicha, an Asturian sidra party to introduce a new batch, which is really just an excuse to eat, drink, and be merry. Thanks to Javier, Blanca, Paloma, Belén, and gang for the great company as we enjoyed the food, sidra, and song (palo, palo, palo, palo, palito, palo, eh…). And to Paloma for the photos. Belén says I am a natural Asturian now, el Rey de la Sidra, which she assures me is a good thing. I guess King of Cider is better than King of Guinness or King of Molsons. At least for the pancita.


(For more on wine and sidra in Spain and Asturias, see Spanish Wine Now and in a Changing World and Asturian Cider Stories and other Gijón Excursions.)

Number 4: Art. Goya, Gaudí, and the Guggenheim and Number 5: Las fiestas. It’s no surprise that the national cinema awards here are called the Goyas. And supposedly, Spain is party capital del mundo with all-night fiestas every day and, ahem, night. But since I still have some more party research to do, I’ll hold off on numbers 4 and 5 until the next caracola.

What I don’t like? Well, I have had so much fun enjoying what I do like that I really haven’t thought much about what I don’t. Certainly not to any degree that I could put together a numbered list. I suppose, bull fights. They’re only on for a week here in Gijón, in La Plaza del Toros I’m told, so the subject hasn’t come up yet. I doubt I will go. Not even for the curiosity. I’m not nearly as sophisticated as all that.

So, for now, sol, comida, bebidas. I am after all getting on. Let me know your suggestions for more, likes or dislikes.

* For me, George Harrison hands down. All Things Must Past, a modern masterpiece.
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From Salpicon to Spam and back

I first discovered the amazing salpicón (salpicon in English) on a trip to A Coruña last summer with Belén, tucked away in an odd restaurant in the city centre on an even odder menú del día. I can’t speak for the salpicón, but for me it was love at first eat. A few more menú del días back in Gijón and then again last Sunday courtesy of Belén’s sister Paz and I became hooked. Otra aventura española de amor por la comida.

salpicon spam

Salpicon is a delicious mix of seafood – shrimps, mussels, clams – together with chopped onion, tomato, pepper, and a few twists of lemon. Think tabbouleh* with seafood instead of bulgar. If you like, a fancy word for seafood salad. Leave it to the Spanish to come up with an exotic word for salad.

It’s more popular in the Hispanic world, especially Central America and Mexico, brought by the Spanish colonists. I have no idea of the origin of the word, although it likely comes from the Spanish verb salpicar, meaning to sprinkle. And like any transplanted dish it has many variants, typically de marisco in Spain but also with fish and beef elsewhere.

Maybe it was a transplanted dish itself, brought with the Arabs who lived and ruled here in varying degrees from 711 to 1492 (Moorish Spain in Al-Andalus or Andalusia). They brought sugar, rice, lemons and increased the use of olives, foods mostly associated now with Spain. According to Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food:

Introductions by the Arabs were … of fundamental importance to Spain’s future. They are particularly associated with the use of almonds (the essential ingredient for so many Spanish desserts, baked goods, and confectionery items); with the introduction of citrus fruit including the lemon and the bitter (Seville) orange…sugar cane and the process of refining sugar from its juice; many vegetables, among which the aubergine (eggplant) was outstanding; and numerous spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, sesame, coriander, aniseed, etc. The Arabs introduced rice to the tidal flatlands of what is now Valencia …The use of saffron in paella is also something which stems from an Arab introduction.

Other sources call salpicon a medley, a melange, a hodge podge. I know what a medley and melange are, I even occasionally use hodge podge in day-to-day life (last round at the quiz was called hodge podge), but the origin of salpicon, I don’t know. Alas whatever it means, however it’s served, and regardless its origin, it is delicious.**

I’m a mixture, a melange, a big jambalaya of cultures myself (my favourite Cayjun or Creole food, itself a rich mix of French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian). I’m three quarters Irish, one quarter Scottish, four quarters Canadian, with maybe a pizca of Asturian cider now. Interesting that the races, which were separated millennia ago, are again reuniting, courtesy of the Industrial Revolution and mass immigrations from poor country to rich. From the blackest of Africa spread apart and mutated by climates over the hundreds of thousands of years (no need for black skin in Sweden) we’re mixing again. Human pea soup.

I suppose Spain is changing too, although it is pretty white. The mix is mostly in the food not the people, with the best and most varied thrown together in foods like paella and salpicon. Spain has its own rugged past with cultural dissent, a cipher anyway for poverty, but no need to dredge up Torquemada and the Reconquista in a caracola on food. Suffice it to say, we all have to learn to mix. Variety is the spice of life. The salsa is the sauce.

Spam on the other hand is something we could all do without, spam as in the incessant commercial messaging that comes with modern technology. The other spam, well, that’s not nice either, an inexpensive (cheap) mix of chopped pork shoulder, ham, potato starch, and sodium nitrate, with a gooey glazed jelly that comes from the cooling of the meat stock. It was popularized after the Second World War by servicemen and women and soon became popular the world over because of its low (cheap) cost.

But most of today’s spam comes via email (85% of all email), Twitter (perhaps one third), even the latest high-tech home appliance which gurgles out ads for our presumed benefit in the midst of slicing and dicing. Essentially, if it’s got a microchip, it can spam (see Finn Brunton’s excellent A Short History of Spam for more on the origins of spam).

It’s not enough that they can stick carbon-unfriendly leaflets in your door, program a robot to telephone you at all hours, they litter your computer selling junk, 24-7, holidays included. No, I’m not interested in collecting my Nigerian inheritance, finding out about government fraud (believe me I already know), or availing of the latest no-strings-attached, no-money-down, don’t-pay-a-cent-until-2054 options on my fibre package. Please, leave me in peace. Don’t you know, I’m enjoying my own amazing can’t-live-without-mix, salpicon.

In fact, that’s my answer to the spammers now: “Sorry chaps, can’t stop now, I’m eating salpicon.” Salpicon, that’s what I’ve been waiting for.

* Not to confuse one little known dish for another: Tabbouleh is a Middle Eastern salad made from bulgur, tomatoes, cucumbers, finely chopped parsley, mint, onion, and garlic and seasoned with olive oil, and lemon juice. I have been eating it and falafel ever since my older sister took me to Moishe’s on Spadina Avenue 35 years ago.
** Some salpicon recipes at and a Youtube video from Cocina Para Todas. Good for Spanish practice too.
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