ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy

CULTURE shock!!!


This weekend, for the first time in a long time, I experienced culture shock. It was nothing to do with the language, the people, or any kind of difference in customs, as I’ve been in Spain for about a year now and I’m well within my comfort zone. I’ve got used to eating dinner at 10pm, being stared at for walking too quickly, and getting woken up by marching bands. And as my Spanish seems to have magically improved (immersion works!), these days I actually understand most of what’s happening around me.

This weekend the culture shock was of a different kind; probably better described as an ‘overwhelming plethora of available cultural activities’. It was the Segovia Hay Festival, the Spanish branch of the famous literary event. Hay started 25 years ago in the UK as a writer’s festival, and has now spread to Asia, Africa, South America, and other parts of Europe. The festival primarily consists of interviews with authors and journalists, but also includes short films, art exhibitions, music concerts, and theatre.

During my past teaching stint in an isolated village, I often felt a little ‘culturally starved’. It’s not that I was ever bored, there were always plenty of parties and traditional celebrations, but Hinojosa wasn’t exactly a target destination for international touring events (it wasn’t even a destination for Spanish artists). Between that and my ever-unreliable internet, I couldn’t have been further from the forefront, of, anything. It got to the point where I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a live act, that wasn’t a production for primary school students (and that I didn’t have to supervise).

The result being, that small as it is*, Segovia now seems like a thriving metropolis, full of countless options for cultural enrichment. Literature with a capital “L”, avant garde theatre and so on. There’s so much to see and do, I find it kind of dizzying. And that’s without even considering the possibilities of Madrid, the proper big city which is literally on my doorstep.

So this weekend, program and umbrella in hand, I did my best to drink deep of what the Hay Festival had to offer. It was inspiring, challenging, entertaining, and kind of exhausting. Much of the content was in Spanish, which meant concentrating pretty damn hard, to follow what was being said, and then get my head around some fairly abstract and philosophical discussions. It made me conscious of just how much my mind wanders in English, where I can follow the thread of a conversation whilst simultaneously planning what I’m going to cook for dinner. In a second language, you just can’t allow yourself the luxury of a minute’s ‘brain rest’, and I don’t think I’ve focused on one thing for such extended periods since the dark ages of my uni exams.

One of the best things about the festival was that most of the events only cost 2€ to attend, some were free, and the priciest acts were still value for money at 10€ per ticket. It was great to see the Arts placed within reach of mere mortals, and I don’t think I was the only one who was rapt to score a full weekend of live entertainment for less than 20€. Here’s a quick snapshot of what I saw:

  • An interview with Phillipa Gregory (in English) on historical fiction and her writing process. It was held in a creatively lit medieval church, the perfect setting for her talk of witchcraft, war, and the barbarity of ancient times. She spoke with eloquence and enthusiasm on her area of expertise; the women of the old British royal families, their individual stories, schemes, and conspiracy theories. She explained her ordered approach to writing historical fiction, and the creative possibilities opened by gaps in history. Very few personal records remain from past centuries, because nobody wrote diaries, they were all too busy just surviving and trying to live life before they died at forty. It’s interesting that this particular genre is so popular during modern times of ‘crisis’, as it makes for such wonderful escapism, as well as a timely reminder that with running water, antibiotics and electricity, we’re really not doing too badly.
  • A ‘dramatic reading’ of Ginsberg’s Howl, in Spanish, by Mexican actor Diego Luna. It was accompanied by guitarist Jaime López, who’s moody chords and guttural backing vocals were the perfect complement to Luna’s fiery performance. At first I was sceptical about the possibility of effectively translating the poem into Spanish (which can render even the driest of English sentences romantic and saccharine), but the result was fantastic and seemingly seamless. The rolling fluidity of Spanish is perfectly suited to wild torrent of words that is Howl, and the performance left me shaky, goose-bumpy, and feeling a little mad myself.
  • An interview with controversial Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård, who’s provocatively titled novel ‘Min Kamp’ has taken the Norwegian literary world by storm, and is beginning to receive no small amount of international acclaim. He talked about the aftermath of writing the epic five volume novel, which aside from fame, has provoked a harsh backlash from friends and family, and an infamous reputation within Norway. This is because the book (which I haven’t yet read, but has certainly piqued my curiosity) is a true-life scathing account of his own family, in which he exposes the flaws, personal details, and full names of every character. Not only was the interview itself fascinating, but so was the experience of listening to a live translation of Norwegian into Spanish through headsets (I felt very important, like a United Nations politician). It took a bit of adjusting to at the beginning, and eventually left me just as much as in awe of the interpreter, as fascinated by the celebrity of the moment.
  • A short film on the development of Indian English literature, from Rushdie’s groundbreaking Midnight’s Children up to the present day. I’d have liked for it to have focused a little more on magic realism (my favourite genre and the theme which was mentioned in the program), but it was more of a who’s who advertisement for the Indian Hay festival and literary world. A very effective advertisement, I must admit, as I left the cinema making a very ambitious mental note of all the new Indian authors I just can’t wait to read, as well as indulgently revisiting old favourites by Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Tooo many books to read. What a wonderful plight.
  • A fantastic discussion between an orchestra conductor and a novelist on the ‘translatability’ of music into words and vice versa. The topic sounds awfully abstract, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear some concrete ideas and poignant observations regarding the role of narrative in music, and the limitations and possibilities of each art form. (I feel suddenly conscious of the restrictions of the written word, is it too late to go back and choose another medium?!). The talk was held in the same medieval church, and was opened and closed by a string quartet which left the audience spellbound.
  • On Wednesday (it’s not over yet!) I’ll be going to an exhibition of Dutch children’s book illustrations. I was hoping to see it this weekend and squeeze in a little review here, but alas there are only so many hours in a Saturday, and the gallery is closed Sun to Tues. But the exhibition (which is free) will be open until the end of October, so for anyone in the area who’s interested in illustration, I’m pretty sure it’ll be well worth the side trip from Madrid. Let me know and we’ll grab a coffee. :-)

Suffice to say, with all this talk of books and writing, I’ve got little desire to do anything other than hole up indoors for a few weeks to read and write. Possibly not the best strategy for making new friends and a life in a new city. Plus it’s Monday now, time to get back to the real world. It’s a hard life. After all that time waiting to start work, now I’m suddenly cursing it.

But no matter. From what the locals (and my toes) are telling me, there’s a long, cold, winter ahead this year. Which means I’ll have plenty of opportunities to curl up on the couch and take comfort in words (and hot chocolate!) in months to come.

5 thoughts on “CULTURE shock!!!

  1. Jean, that sounds like an amazing festival! I’m a little jealous, even though I know there are lots of cultural things in Brisbane I could be getting out and seeing (and I do!). Really intrigued about the talk with the writer and conductor – do you know who the conductor was? Know if any of the festival was recorded/podcasted/transcripted for the web? Sounds like you are still having a wonderful time. :-) xo

    • hey Bron, I thought of you at the event, of how much you’d have loved that discussion!
      the muso was Josep Pons, the writer was Antonio Muñoz Molina, and the performance was by the Avanti Quartet – I probably should’ve given them all credit in the post, cos they were AMAZING!
      If you look at the Segovia Hay festival website (click the link within the post above), there should be photos, and maybe recordings. Or try google? I know some of the other events have been youtubed… this one was called ‘Traducir la música’

  2. oh jean! oh oh oh, this sounds magnificent. tell me more and more, i wish i were there.

    i love howl.

    “who wept at the romance of their streets with their pushcarts full of onions and bad music

    who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time & alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade
    who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully, gave up and were forced to open antique stores where they thought they were growing old and cried

    ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time -“

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