ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


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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.

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Write here, right now. The “first” post.

This is weird.

Considering I’ve been spamming friends and family with travel reports for years, and writing a regular journal for a decade, it now feels a little odd being prompted by WordPress to get going and write an ‘opening’ post… Surely that moment has long passed! Which means my blog is already a chronologically wrangled, unsalvageable disaster…

So where am I coming from, and why am I bothering to learn all this html/CSS/widget nonsense?

Well…

Roughly this time last year, I packed up all my things, sold some bits n’ pieces, gave away the bulk of my clothes, threw out a whole lot of ‘stuff’, and left Australia on a one-way ticket to Europe. I did a brief (wonderful) scoot around France and Italy, and then made my way to a small and isolated village in the south of Spain, where I would be living and teaching English in a primary school for eight months. That was my starting point. The extended plan was to use Spain as a base to further travel Europe, and then, after magically ‘mastering’ Spanish, I would continue onwards travelling around the globe, goodness knows where, for goodness knows how long. I made no promises about my return date to the folk back home. The reasoning (impulse) behind this indefinite departure was that I wanted total ‘freedom’. Freedom from what, I’m not entirely sure. I simply felt overwhelmed by the urge to be on the road, to find some time, space, ‘inspiration’, and then think of something amazingly clever to do with those things. Sounds a bit wishy washy, and it is.

Needless to say, since leaving Australia I haven’t had any epiphanies, or even come near to being fluent in Spanish. I’ve realised I have no real desire to truly ‘break away’ from where I’ve come from, and just how lucky I am to have a place in the world that will be a pleasure to go back to, when the time comes. Meanwhile, I haven’t tired of travelling (not even close!), I am making headway with Spanish (slow and steady), and teaching English is the most gratifying work I’ve ever done. I’ve signed on for another school year (in a different part of Spain), there’s still an awful lot of Europe left to see, and after that I’ve got my sights set on a couple of other continents… so for the foreseeable, ‘day-dreamable’ future, my initial ‘plan’ hasn’t altered much at all.

As for the dismal, ever-pending onset of creativity, well my most recent excuse is that it got waylaid by an irresistible tide of Spanish hospitality. Guilty as charged. I also got sidetracked by lesson planning, taking on too many private students, fretting over Spanish verb conjugations, and running up and down a hill (to work off all the churros and chorizo). Either that or I was travelling. But somehow, I always found time write in my journal, and maintain a detailed correspondence with people at home. To be honest, waay too much time. My travel emails have grown to excessive lengths; impossible for my very busy and mostly office-bound friends to read in their tea breaks, without violating codes of responsible internet time usage. And my journal makes my emails look like haikus.

So in regards to time usage – mine clearly merits scrutiny. It’s hit me that I do a lot of writing, without doing any actual proper ‘writing’. I’ve never struggled to fill a blank page… but how and what I fill it with, is something I want to improve upon.

Which is why I’ve decided to start this blog, against all warning that it will be a very dangerous source of procrastination. I’m never going to stop telling my travel stories, because I can’t, but I can aim to make them more concise, and present them in a more attractive format. I’m also hoping that having an ‘online showcase’ will spur me on to more ambitious projects, other than only writing about myself. For those of you who are kind enough to ‘follow’ me, I’ll be adding some photos, links, articles, sketches and snippets… whatever I can find to make things interesting, and as far as possible from a narcissistic online diary (even if that’s what it is).

If I’m feeling particularly brave, I’ll publish my attempts to write in Spanish, for anyone who knows the language and feels like a laugh. Even if you’re just learning, go on and have a read… my vocabulary won’t be nearly as daunting as that of a native speaker. But keep in mind that I’ve still got my training wheels on, so if you’re looking for examples of perfect Spanish grammar, look elsewhere! And I should probably make a similar disclaimer about my English. (there it is again, the ‘and’ at the start of a sentence!)

So… that’s it really. Oh I forgot to say ‘welcome’. That’s an important part of any opening post. Well, welcome! Have a look around. If you’re curious about the name ‘ciento volando’, check out the ‘about’ page. If you’d like to read my past travels (perhaps whilst planning yours), I’ve uploaded some old emails and backdated them… hopefully this isn’t a major breach of blogging etiquette/regulation. I promise I won’t fiddle with any more dates. (But that’s no fun! Perhaps I’ll write the next entry from the future…)

I digress. Old posts/emails can be found in the archives on the right. They aren’t nearly as dusty as real archives, how ’bout that?!

It appears that at  circa 1,000 words I go all stupid. Which is why in I must endeavour to write shorter posts.

Anyway, thank you for reading this far, and I hope you’ll stick around. Please feel welcome to leave me feedback, criticism, ‘likes’, ‘dislikes’, ‘hahahas’, ‘jajajas’, or even just a nice old ‘hello’ from time to time.

jean