Donde Esta El Flamenco?

I’m discovering that writing about a great trip, one that’s largely problem free and quite enjoyable, can quickly become a boring process. Happiness and smooth sailing just doesn’t seem to translate well into my style of storytelling (unless I was getting paid by National Geographic—but I’m not).  So-- after considering a number of highly inappropriate writing angles-- I decided that the most engaging way to reflect on my recent Spanish travels would be to simply pose some questions— innocent questions—that popped up here and there during the course of my recent Andalusian experience. 

Language quethstion: In what other country does the national language require—or at least heavily encourage-- a known speech impediment? I think the Spanish lisp might be one of the few things left on the planet that I can ridicule without feeling an ounce of guilt. In fact, it makes me feel better. Unlike my language experiences in Italy, the Spaniards really made me grateful that my accent was unlike theirs, and that the little Spanish I do know is both Mexican-influenced and lisp-free.  It’s a good thing my girlfriend and travel partner is a physical therapist and not a speech therapist because I imagine that all those lispy mouths would give one recurring nightmares.

Food question: What’s up with the unpredictable, inescapable tapas? First of all, what does “tapas” really mean? A brief history of these typical Spanish appetizers might give some insight as to why they are so hit and miss. Apparently there are two stories. In one version, an old Spanish king was quite ill, so he could only eat very small portions of food at a time—with his wine, of course. He then advised all of his fellow Spaniards to eat and drink accordingly-- like birds. The other version (the one I believe) is that once upon a time an old Spanish king (maybe the same guy) used a piece of bread to cover his wine so fruit flies wouldn’t get in it. Bread-based tapas eventually became common as snacks to accompany (and still cover) their wine glasses, which makes sense because taparmeans “to cover” in Spanish.  But the main reason I buy this history over the first one is because the tapas’ original function was protection, not as quality cuisine.  This might explain why some tapas turn out to be culinary delights, while others taste like they were made out of public school cafeteria leftovers. I suppose it didn’t help that most of the tapas I saw were made out of pig, and my stomach had grown sick of having to choose between smoked, minced, pastry-puffed, linked, dried or fried pork.  The English menu translations didn’t help my appetite much either: ‘pig intestines’, ‘ear of a cow’, ‘raw squid’. I was also a bit disappointed by the advertisements for free tapas with the purchase of a drink which were posted in front of some bars-- which leads to more of an economic question: What does “free tapas” really mean in Spain? I ask this only because, after seeing offerings of “free” tapas, we would sit down, peruse the tapas menu, order a drink, and then select our free tapa from the waiter. Uhh, no puede hacer, amigo. Turns out they choose the free tapa for you. I imagine that they keep them in the back of the kitchen in a box that’s labeled ‘Mierda’ or ‘Crap the chef wants to get rid of.’  That is, if there is a chef.  In most places the bartender would just dart to the kitchen, turn on a fryer or a microwave, and then emerge 1 minute later with chicken skewers.  Who cooks chicken in less than a minute?—in a microwave?  Needless to say, the tapas selections were not always the most satisfying, and I learned that nothing worth eating there is absolutely free.
Columbus question: Why is there an elaborate monument to Christopher Columbus still standing in the Sevilla Cathedral? I understand that he’s been given credit for “discovering” America and all, but since then we’ve found out a lot about the guy. For one, he was a failure-- navigationally speaking.  He thought he was about to hit China and was a stone’s throw from India when he stumbled upon and misnamed the Caribbean islands the “Indies”.  Then, tragically, he proceeded to rape, pillage, enslave, torture, embezzle, cheat, steal and murder in the name of Spanish royalty and the Catholic church! The Vatican knew he was way worse than the Inquisition’s Torquemada, yet he’s got this huge, elaborate sculpture in the largest church in Spain? And it wasn’t like they were unaware. They knew he was a criminal back in the 1490’s, that’s why he spent time in a Spanish prison. Yet the Catholic church is still okay with memorializing him? Of course it is. The church in Sevilla is adorned with gold and silver, worth millions, probably brought back from the Americas, mined by the slave labor of indigenous Indians. To add insult to ignorance, Columbus wasn’t even Spanish! (Neither is soccer star Lionel Messi, BTW) WTF!?

Flamenco question: ‘Donde esta el Flamenco?’ That’s what I kept saying as we hiked through the hilly neighborhood of Sacromonte in Granada, known for the best flamenco shows; known as the birthplace of Flamenco. Yet we had walked for 40 minutes and found nothing, though still listened for the distant sounds of stomping heels and frantic hand clapping. Finally we found a place and asked:
 Cuanto cuesta?
22 euro? 30 dollars!
Para Flamenco?
‘Si’, the old man said.
If I was fluent in Spanish I would have told him that I wouldn’t pay 22 euro if it was the Gypsy Kings and Selma Hayek was dancing nude (OK, I may be lying about the Selma Hayek part, but I’m sticking to the rest of it). So I said, Como se dice ‘highway robbery’?—but I said it with an exaggerated Americano accent to drive my point home. I’d been drinking.  I waited for the old man to throw back a lower number or offer a two for one, until his lisp reminded me that I wasn’t in Mexico. I was in Spain, and apparently they don’t negotiate cover charges. As we departed we were nearly crushed by a stampede of two hundred Japanese tourists just bused into the area, looking eager to dish out 22 euros to see anyone with a Spanish guitar, castanets, and a lisp. So that night in Granada, the so-called birthplace of flamenco music, we did not see one flamenco show, but instead ended up in a discoteca that was actually called “The Discoteca”. It pulled us in with the offer of free drinks to offset the small cover charge.  But as soon as we approached the bar, we recognized that old Spanish “free tapa” trick.  The bartenders were handing out their choice of free drink (one), which happened to be diluted soda-style sangria, served in Dixie cups at 15-minute intervals.

My ‘Donde esta el flamenco?’ inquiry was ultimately answered with a floor stomping, energetic, 3 euro show in Malaga—the other self-proclaimed birthplace of Flamenco (along with every other town in Southern Spain).  The performance was beautiful and romantic and dramatic—really dramatic.  The facial expressions of the dancers were so intense that I thought they might be in serious pain, or about to commit a crime of passion. But at the end of the song they would smile and bow just like actors on a stage, releasing the crowd’s tension. These talented musicians turned wooden boxes into drum sets, one guitar into a string ensemble, and sang like Middle Eastern mystics giving birth to something forbidden. Their vibrant show inspired me to create my own imitation Spanish flamenco piece, which I recorded upon my return from Malaga. It is entitledDonde Esta el Flamenco? (click here for song and slideshow)

So those are my questions to Spain, Spaniards and Spanish history. Please consider them an exercise in writing and expression, not my comprehensive view of Spain. They represent only one aspect of my trip to Andalucia, and are not intended to discourage anyone from traveling to that part of the world. It is a truly awe-inspiring region (And, no, I don’t have a contract with their board of tourism). The Alhambra in Granada is a must-see; the mosque in Cordoba the most interesting religious building I’ve ever been in; Ronda the most jaw-dropping small town I’ve ever walked through. It oozes with history (especially once you get into the centro historico). It was romantic and beautiful-- so much so that I had to edit that part almost completely out of this blog for fear that it might sound too sappy, mushy, and cheesy.

Hasta luego.