Dub step

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For the first few months I lived in Spain, my roommate and I often turned on the TV to catch late-night American movies and shows. We bemoaned the fact that all of these English offerings were dubbed instead of subtitled for Spanish viewers, wishing we could hear the familiar voices of George Clooney and Bart Simpson. We talked about how strange it is that Spanish voice actors make a career out of dubbing one particular American actor so that Brad Pitt, for instance, always sounds the same in Spain even though it’s not his actual voice.

Too hot for Franco

There’s a reason, though, that dubbing is the only means of translating films and television in Spain, and it’s more insidious than mere tradition. For the forty years that General Franco was in power, he sought to control Spanish society through strong censorship of all “foreign” elements. He even suppressed cultures native to Spain, such as Basque and Catalán, for the sake of creating a unified national identity. Thus, all films and literature that came to Spain between 1936 and 1975 were edited in the translation process to show Spaniards only what Franco wanted them to see. Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, for instance, showed too much immoral behavior for Franco’s liking and so the film in Spain was shown with many of the most humorous scenes deleted.

Translation, then, is often more than an artistic pursuit. The reasons that some works literature are translated while other works are not are frequently political, and linguistic choices can be made to emphasize certain elements for the new audience. Indeed, Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, which asserts that salvation is granted on faith alone (and not through good deeds), led to the Protestant Reformation.

I found that my small town in Spain was sorely in need of a translator for neither artistic nor political reasons, but just to make sense. A restaurant near my apartment offered their menu in English and French, and I loved reading  the loosely translated names of their dishes. Aged sheep cheese became “Cheese of sheep old man,” while a bread basket became “Table of bread.” When they weren’t sure which word to pick from their English dictionary, they just included both translations, neither of them correct: scrambled eggs with blood sausage became “In a mess (untidy) of pudding rice.” And my favorite: “Attacked of fantasy of mushrooms.” With a name like that, who cares what’s really in the dish.

The offending, or perhaps delighting, menu

How to be a photographer

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What you’ll need: a camera, a subject

Songlist: I Turn My Camera On by Spoon, Cameras by Matt and Kim

Further reading: The Making of 40 Photographs by Ansel Adams, A Photographer’s Life by Annie Leibovitz


One of my favorite Elliott Erwitt photographs

You might not think it by seeing the quality of pictures I take on my iPhone, but I won a photography contest once. Granted, the contest was limited to the few hundred people teaching in my program in Spain, but still it rewarded me 100€. Not bad for an amateur, eh?

My winning photograph--dancing flamenco on my apartment roof

Besides that first place photo I’ve never been particularly proficient with a camera, but have long admired the art of photography. The first time I was truly struck by a photographer’s work was when I visited the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid at the age of 16. We’d gone to admire Picasso’s Guernica, but had an extra couple hours to explore and so toured the special exhibits. One large room was dedicated to Elliott Erwitt‘s work. I was awestruck.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered the father of photojournalism, published a book of his images in 1952 called The Decisive Moment. He borrowed the title from a seventeenth century quote: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” As Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post, “Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

Elliott Erwitt is a genius at recognizing and capturing these decisive moments–you have the sense that if his shutter had closed a moment earlier or later the entire picture would have been worthless. After being enamored of his work, I bought a book of his photographs and have often used the images as prompts for short stories. For indeed his photographs make the viewer ask questions–Why is this man leaping? What is this couple thinking as they dance? Are the children afraid of the impending storm?

Great photography need not always be of this genre. Ansel Adams accentuated the majesty of the land. Annie Leibovitz creates gorgeous moments and captures her subjects at their most vulnerable, otherworldly, striking. But the surprise of Erwitt’s photography is what I love most. And, I think, these are the kind of images that can get burned in our brains. Like the Tiananmen Square Tank Man. Like the Vietnamese children running from a napalm attack. While some of Erwitt’s photographs are as dramatic as these, he captures the whole range of human emotion: humor, joy, grief, absurdity. If I were to pursue a career in photography, I’d aspire to shoot like Erwitt.

Who can resist a good dog photo?

Beer mash

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I never knew I’d have so much to say about beer. Usually after I write Monday’s post I brainstorm a few other ideas that could work for that topic, and I’m lucky if I come up with four. But, just like a good fermented beer keeps feeding on itself, my list of potential topics kept growing and growing…

So here are many of the thoughts that I couldn’t develop more fully:

1. I’ll drink to that

My parents have a set of drinking glasses with words for “cheers” in different languages on the side of them. Here are the words I’ve used to toast, and why: Cheers (English–all the time); Salud (Spanish–while living in Mexico & Spain); A votre sante (French–while in Paris and to sound cultured); Nazdrave (Bulgarian–because I lived for a summer in Provincetown, MA with a bunch of Bulgarian seasonal workers); Slainte (Irish–in Dublin and while drinking with Irish writers); Prost (German–in German class); L’chaim (Hebrew–at Jewish gatherings and at the after-party for “Fiddler on the Roof”); Skål (Scandanavian–I’m a Viking, remember?)

2. Best-sellers

On the multicultural note, it’s interesting–and perhaps somewhat embarrassing–to see which beers are the best-sellers around the world. In the United States we buy Bud Lite more than any other beer. So much for microbrews.

3. How to repurpose an old brewery

Where do breweries go to die? Hopefully, they don’t. Here’s a story of a smart urban planner who found a new use for a wonderful abandoned brewery. (oh yeah, and one of my friends works for this guy).

4. Milwaukee brews

My boyfriend drinks PBR. Pabst Blue Ribbon is the drink of hipsters. Since my boyfriend also wears a lot of plaid shirts, listens to obscure music (he’s a music writer, for goodness sake!), and bikes any time he can, some go so far as to label him a hipster. He counters with the fact that he’s from a town near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and locals always drink local beer. This was known and reported on by the New Yorker in 1960 (it’s free if you’re a subscriber, and I highly recommend it as it’s surprisingly hilarious). Some things never change.

5. Drinking time

My college’s unofficial mascot is Keggy the Keg. Our official mascot is “the big green.” That’s right, a color. Only “big.” No wonder Keggy makes such frequent appearances around campus, like at this tour for prospective students:

Oh yeah, Dartmouth was also the college that inspired this:

I’m planning to add more to this beer list in the coming days, so check back soon!

How to be a yogi

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What you’ll need: yoga mat, bendy limbs

Songlist: Faith Hill’s BreatheTwist and Shout by the Beatles

Further reading: The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele, or, ya know, Eat, Pray, Love

I was always “different” as a kid. My parents stopped eating meat while living in Morocco for the Peace Corps and raised my brother and me as vegetarians. My friends would give up meat for Lent to see what it was like, and complain after a few days, wondering how I didn’t have constant cravings for burgers (hint: it’s easy if you’ve never had one). Furthermore, one of my hobbies was doing yoga, a strange-sounding practice that no one had heard of in 1993 in my elementary school (“But I thought you were Christian?” they’d say in confusion).

My uncle spent several years living at Kripalu, a yoga center in Massachusetts, learning and then teaching yoga. We visited him often, and sometimes took classes there as well. In a photo album from 1990, my uncle is in a picture-perfect downward dog, while I, all of four years old, am doing my best to imitate the pose next to him.

By the time I got to college, yoga was no longer a foreign concept, but I had become a stranger to it: I hadn’t practiced in a decade. Luckily, my college had a PE requirement, which could be fulfilled in numerous exciting ways: white-water kayaking, snowboarding, and yoga. I chose all of the above.

I became so enamored of it that the summer after I graduated I got an unlimited pass to a nearby chain-yoga-studio, CorePower. True to its mass-produced nature, every class I took had the exact same sequence of poses. From June to August I appreciated this fact, always knowing what was coming next, and realizing when I could go deeper in a pose than I’d been able to before. By September I was bored. And then I moved to Spain.

The author, at far right, doing yoga in the mountains

Somehow I got lucky enough not only to be placed in a town with a yoga instructor, but also to move in to an apartment directly across the street from where that yoga instructor taught her classes. Every Wednesday afternoon my roommate and I would stroll across to the centuries-old monastery and do an hour or so of yoga, led both in English and Spanish (I learned the words for body parts in Spanish really quickly). In the springtime our teacher–who had become one of our closest friends–drove us out to the Spanish countryside and we would do yoga in the mountains or facing up at our gorgeous white town.

Now back in the United States, I haven’t yet found an analogous class. In Spain there were rarely more than about five or six students, so our teacher shaped the class to our capabilities. She knew what we struggled with, and what we were getting better at. I certainly never got bored.

I’ve gone to CorePower a few times since returning, but sometimes I notice myself getting competitive, glancing around to assure myself that my leg is higher or my back straighter than my neighbors’. But, of course, yoga is not about competition, and it’s not only about the body. The original intent of yogic practices was to attain spiritual insight and inner balance. And while balance is difficult to find in the midst of a packed schedule and an even more crowded yoga studio, it is certainly attainable in the mountains of Spain. Yoga retreat, anyone?

Gods and geodes

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I remember one time as a kid cracking open geodes with my grandfather. It felt like a mini-experiment in mining–you didn’t quite know what you’d find inside.

My favorites were always amethyst geodes, those glittering purple cavities inside such ugly exteriors. If we are to believe Greek legend, amethysts were created when a god’s tears turned white quartz purple. Dionysus, god of wine, pursued a young lady, Amethystos, who didn’t return his affections. She prayed to remain chaste, so the goddess Artemis turned her into a white stone. Dionysus wept tears of remorse over her crystalline form, and stained her purple. Having thus chastened Dionysus, amethysts were considered to be strong antidotes to drunkenness, and wine goblets were often carved from it.

Geodes themselves are fairly interesting creations, as they form in the cavities of sedimentary and volcanic rock. While the rock layer hardens, silicates and carbonates filter through and form crystals. And then, if a geode is lucky, a Greek god cries on it and turns it purple.

Sitting inside the geode in Almería, Spain

The largest geode in the world was found a few years ago in an abandoned silver mine in southern Spain. It’s 26 feet long and 6 feet tall; it can comfortably seat 10 people inside (however, people are discouraged from being inside it, for fearing of increasing the humidity too much and destroying the crystals). The gigantic geode probably formed when the Mediterranean started to evaporate 6 million years ago, leaving behind thick layers of salt which then filled up a cavity near the Spanish coast. Seems like the gods might have had something to do with that one, too.

Watermelon-tomato gazpacho recipe

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Mmmm, gazpacho...

When the heat arrives in southern Spain, Andalucíans crave one thing: gazpacho. Also: air conditioning. Gazpacho is more readily available.

My flamenco teacher in Arcos de la Frontera, Santi, told us that as a child he would eat bowls of gazpacho for dinner in hot months and fall asleep. Waking up from dehydration–gazpacho can be quite salty–he would go to the refrigerator for water, see leftover gazpacho, and down more of that instead.

He assured us that real gazpacho only requires a few key ingredients: tomatoes, salt, olive oil, water, and vinegar.

Though Santi is a gazpacho purist, I always enjoyed when a restaurant would serve my bowl of cold tomato soup with small sides of chopped onion, cucumber, pepper, and slices of hard-boiled egg to mix in.

Following is the recipe for watermelon-tomato gazpacho–Santi would disapprove, no doubt–that took me five hours to prepare, as I described yesterday:

3 cups watermelon chunks, seeded and pureed in a blender
1 cup seeded watermelon, coarsely chopped
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1/2 English cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1/2 cup red or green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 small handful cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger
1/2 small jalapeno, seeded and chopped
1 scallion (white and 1-inch of green), chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
Black pepper, to taste

1. In a large glass bowl, combine the watermelon puree, chunks, tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, lime juice, cilantro, ginger, jalapeno, scallion, and salt. Stir well, add pepper and more salt, if you like.

2. Ladle into 4 chilled bowls and serve.

How to be a dog walker


What you’ll need: a leash, a multitude of plastic bags

Songlist: Who Let the Dogs Out? by Baha Men, Salty Dog Rag by Red Foley

Further reading: The Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Marley and Me by John Grogan

Dogs: the best thing ever created (not that I'm biased)

Last year, my doorbell rang. A thin man with oiled hair stood outside with a clipboard in his hand. Upon seeing me, he launched into a narrative of redemption. He was trying to sell me something—a magazine subscription or ecstasy or Jesus, I couldn’t tell which—but first he had to draw me in.

“Ma’am,” he said, “What’s your profession?”

“I’m a teacher,” I said. Minnesota Reading Corps-Americorps Literacy Tutor at Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary—my official title—was more information than he needed.

“And what was your first job?”

“Um, walking a dog.”

“So, think about it. You’ve gone from picking up shit to educating our young people, arguably the most important profession in the world.”

In fact, I had gone from making ten dollars for each half hour walk to a position where I calculated my earnings to be about four to five dollars an hour. And I went from picking up a small pile of literal shit to dealing with the metaphorical shit of ineffective bureaucracy, difficult coworkers, and the special needs of homeless, neglected, and mentally disabled children. Metaphor trumps literal.

Iberian ham in a handy ham-holder. Yum!

Since I graduated college in 2008, I have somehow managed to make successively less money every year. My first job was as a Language and Cultural Assistant at an elementary school in southern Spain. Compared to my fellow Dartmouth graduates’ starting salaries of 70Gs at consulting firms and financial institutions, my 700€ a month stipend didn’t seem like much. However, I was placed in a tiny town where the only items in the grocery store more expensive than about three euro were the cured pigs’ legs. Plus, I was only required to work twelve hours a week (thank you, siesta culture), and, after all, these were euros we were talking about.

Then came the AmeriCorps job. Service to our country cannot be underestimated, but it sure can be underpaid. Daily, I came home exhausted, unable to do much more than read my horoscope for the day already past and fall asleep. I was in awe of two of my co-tutors who held other part-time jobs in addition to our forty-five-hour weeks at the school. They soon quit their other jobs.

AmeriCorps ended last July, and I decided not to renew my contract for one more year. I now work as a receptionist at an oriental medicine health clinic. Besides the bonus of free acupuncture whenever I want—who needs health insurance when you’ve got needles!—I make ten dollars an hour. However, the clinic is small and my help is needed only four to eight hours a week. I now have plentiful time and energy to write.  So far, though, I haven’t found anyone to pay me for that, and my funds are running low for the trussed up coffee drinks I buy during my café writing sessions.

Maybe I should just go back to dog walking.

The garden as paradise

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Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights

As I was walking my dog today, I admired the state of gardens in my neighborhood. I had just come back from the Linder’s Garden Center, which has everything a Minnesotan gardener might need: Zone 4 hardy perennials, bright annuals, evergreen trees, even Koi fish for ponds. In my walk, I saw combinations of the these same elements: blooming petunias, fading tulips, lush hostas and ornamental grasses. All beautiful, but somewhat repetitive. Living in Minnesota, I sometimes forget that a garden can mean so much more than a fragrant interlude between house and garage.

The English word ‘paradise’ comes from the Old Persian pairidaeza, which means ‘walled garden.’ Of course, one of the primary creation stories of humankind takes place in the earthly paradise known as the Garden of Eden. This garden was a place of safety and innocence and order; when Adam and Eve were expelled they were confronted with danger and chaos and longed to return to the garden.

Gardens attained the highest of statuses in ancient civilizations, such as Nebuchadnezzar II’s Hanging Gardens of Babylonia, labelled one of the seven wonders of the world. Islamic culture gave rise to fabulous gardens that provided a metaphorical and literal escape from the wildness of nature. These gardens were walled off and cultivated as verdant spaces with shade and water elements to contrast the surrounding arid environment. Their geometrical design harkened back to the Garden of Eden’s location at the intersection of four rivers.

In fact, I should not use the past tense when describing these gardens. I visited many such gardens in southern Spain, which was in the hands of Islamic rulers longer than it has since been under Catholic control. The most extraordinary gardens I visited were the Alcázar in Sevilla and the Alhambra in Granada.

The Alhambra at twilight

I visited the Alhambra for the second time this past July. A friend of mine and I chose an evening entrance time when the Spanish summer heat was at a low. We walked through the Palacio de Nazaries in twilight with bats swinging over our heads and water trickling through grooves in the stone steps. After the palace we strolled to the Generalife gardens (from the Arabic Jennat al Arif, or Garden of the Architect). It was dark by this time, and thus we could not see the vast Moorish garden, but the warm, damp air was full of the scent of jasmine and lavender. This truly was paradise.

Hallelujah, it’s running men


A poster for Arcos de la Frontera's running of the bulls

As I mentioned on Friday, the town in southern Spain that I lived in for a year, Arcos de la Frontera, has an unusual way of celebrating Resurrection Sunday. The event is called Aleluya del Toro, or the Hallelujah Bull. Townspeople get quite drunk and await the arrival of the two bulls that are let loose into a long gated corridor on the main street. If you feel particularly cocky (I use this word deliberately, as all of the people inside the bulls’ corridor are men) you may slide through the human-sized openings in the gates or jump over the top to challenge the bulls head-on. Dozens of ambulances and medical responders are on hand to deal with the inevitable bloody aftermath.

Facing off against the bull from the safety of the guardrail

Two years ago I wandered downhill from my apartment with friends to see the spectacle for ourselves. Thousands of people lined the red guardrails, and we heard the whoops of those nearing the bull that had already been let loose. We soon spotted the bull, who was near the end of the guardrail, its black hide gleaming with sweat, its sides heaving. The bull was obviously exhausted from running. Men ran in front of it, waving bright pink matador capes, but the bull was uninterested. Finally, a man pulled the rope tied to one of the bull’s horns until the bull was annoyed enough to give chase. Delighted screams went up into the bright day as men fled and spectators cheered.

One man narrowly escapes, while the rest keep chase

The first bull disappeared from view, but we stayed in our position until the second bull was released. A truck pulled up with a large wooden crate marked 2 (I thought of Dr. Seuss’s Thing One and Thing Two). This bull was angry with captivity, and we heard its thrashing inside. One of its horns splintered through the wood. A crane hoisted the bull’s box into the gated corridor and a man on top of the box lifted the trap door. The bull came out in a rage and, instead of charging down into the open area in front of the box, it wheeled around and charged directly at the end of the guardrail where we were standing. Spectators who were sitting on top of the rail threw themselves backward to avoid the bull’s horns, and all narrowly missed being gored. The bull then took off in the opposite direction, leaving those who’d been in the most danger standing with shocked expressions.

The people of Andalucía have a fascination with that moment before death, referred to as duende. Flamenco strives to express that knife-edge of mortality, but duende is not merely a metaphysical idea. Instead, it is a method of living: there is truth that can only be discovered in that split second before life ends and thus you must continuously seek out experiences which will transport you to that moment. As I watched those people who had almost died by a bull’s horn on Easter Sunday, I saw their shock turn into grins. They gestured to each other–Did you see how close I was? Did you see how he almost got me?–and shared their survivor’s euphoria. Not me, not today, but almost, they seemed to be reasoning. And that almost, that brush with death, reaffirmed the gift of life.

Spanish fashion

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Before I moved to an Andalusian town in the fall of 2008, people gushed, “Spanish women are so fashionable.” I was intimidated. The gushing people were wrong.

A week after I moved to Arcos de la Frontera, my roommate and I got caught in a downpour. We had dance class but the clothes we brought were soaked through, so we quickly ducked into a Spanish clothing store. She pulled a few pairs of exercise pants to try on, and I found a few tops. After a few minutes, she emerged from her dressing room, horrified.

Why is your crotch at your knee? Why, for goodness sake, why?

“There’s something wrong with all of these pants. They…they just don’t fit right!” she exclaimed. And thus we were introduced to harem pants. We had arrived just as the trend really started to kick in, and soon it was impossible to go a day without seeing a young woman or man wearing pants where the crotch was at the knee. This trend was hideous enough that I expected it to expire within a few weeks, but, alas, we were subjected to it the entire year we lived in Spain.

The only reason not to wear harem pants, it seemed, was to match the shade of your pants exactly to your shirt. I’d see a woman wearing canary yellow from head to toe one day–yellow sweater, yellow jeans, yellow high heels–and spot her all in fuchsia the next day. I saw outfits constructed entirely of fire-engine red and outfits of Granny Smith green.

Can you spot the author amid the polka dots?

This trend, at least, seemed to have its origins in flamenco, a piece of Spanish culture that I deeply love. When a friend of mine who lived in Paris at the time came to visit, I took her to my favorite place in Sevilla: a flamenco dress store. Having come from a land where women had only two colors in their wardrobes–black and gray–her retinas burned at the bright colors.

Only bold statements could compete with bold colors for popularity among Spanish youths (no matter if these statements were in English and therefore completely incomprehensible to the wearer). There were the usual attempts at sauciness blazoned across one’s chest–“I’m too sexy for this shirt” or “My eyes are up here”–the kind that make you cringe on an English-speaker let alone someone who has no idea what they’re projecting to the world. English words were frequently misspelled on these shirts, and sentences verged on ludicrous. But there was one sweatshirt I saw for which the statement was such a mess that I stopped dumbstruck in the middle of the street and wrote it down as soon as I regained feeling in my brain. The message? “Every body lovering so we all love.”

Spain, you and your fashion sense are so crazy. I’ll never stop lovering you.