Churchill, Shakespeare and the Jocs Florals

On May 28th of 1943, Winston Churchill flew from Gibraltar to Algiers on board of one of his personal airplanes, ‘Ascalon’. The plane was named after the sword used by the patron saint of England, Saint George. That year would be a turning point in WWII, as the Soviets would advance on the Eastern Front and the rest of the Western Allies would disembark in Italy.  Two years later, Germany surrendered, and ten years later Churchill received his Nobel Prize in Literature “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.

One wonders how Winston Churchill would react to recent arguments related to the celebration of Saint George’s day in England. When faced with the dilemma of whether Saint George’s celebration is bound to be an ugly nationalist celebration, one should remember that England is not the only country that has Saint George as its patron saint: Catalonia, Romania and Portugal, among other countries and cities, also count with the ‘protection’ of this Roman soldier. Those that are not comfortable celebrating Christian traditions may find comfort in the fact that Saint George’s day coincides with the commemoration of Shakespeare’s death and with the international book day. In fact, Saint George is a recurrent motto in Shakespeare’s work, appearing over 18 times, and the story of Saint George’s killing of the dragon is mentioned in Richard III and King Lear.

The medieval legend of Saint George is a symbolic story that tells us about the importance of individual courage against totalitarianism and injustice. In the tale, a small Roman town is terrorized by a tyrannical and seemingly invincible dragon, which is only appeased when fed. Once the cattle are gone, the citizens of the helpless Roman town decide to feed him one person a day, chosen by lottery. One day, the princess of the town is chosen, and the king is forced to accept her certain death. When the city is about to lose to tyranny its most beautiful citizen, the young and beloved princess, a hero riding a horse appears: he has come to rescue her from her dreadful fate. Saint George bravely pierces the dragon’s scales with Ascalon and is cheered by the town’s people as their saviour.

The Catalan version of the legend of Saint George, Sant Jordi in Catalan, has a romantic dimension lacking in others: before leaving the village that he has just saved, Saint George makes a gift of a rose, sprung from the dragon’s blood, to the princess, as a token of love. Mimicking this gesture, Catalan men traditionally give a rose to their beloved on Saint George’s day.

But how did Saint George’s day become World Book Day? In the late 1920’s, Vicente Clavel, an editor living in Barcelona, noticed that the long-held tradition coincided with the commemoration of the death of two of the best writers that mankind has seen: Shakespeare and Cervantes. He then proposed to give books together with roses, binding love and literature in what would prove to be a very successful marketing move for the editorial sector. The addition of the celebration of the book day on the same date converted what was a unidirectional transaction into an exchange in which the woman receives a rose, and the man, a book (although in the present day, many couples exchange books, even if the woman receives a rose).

The link between spring, roses, and literature was not novel: in 1323, the Jocs Florals, ‘floral games’, also known as Jocs de la Gaia Ciència, ‘games of the light-hearted science’, were instituted for the first time in Toulouse, in the Languedoc. This literary contest gathered troubadours from the Occitan-speaking world and the Crown of Aragon, who contended for three blooming prizes: the golden wild rose, for the best patriotic or historical poem, the natural flower, for the best free-style poem, and the golden or silver violet, for the best poem on a religious subject. The history of this literary contest is turbulent and subject to political changes: in 1393 the games moved from Toulouse in the Languedoc to Barcelona, where they have remained, and where they still take place on an annual basis, albeit with a different format. The date of the celebration of the Jocs Florals was traditionally the 1st of May. The proximity with Saint George’s day, as well as the new literary connotation of April 23rd, has blurred the boundaries between both events. Hence, many schools, for instance, celebrate small-scale Jocs Florals on Saint George’s day (as will do Catalans UK, on April 23rd in London).

We don’t know if Winston Churchill named his plane ‘Ascalon’ himself, but in a way, he was a modern-day Saint George. When Europe was terrorised by its worst dragon, and England was tempted to accept a humiliating compromise, Churchill guided us to the most important fight of modern history: the combat of the people against tyranny. Nor do we know if he knew of Catalan Saint George’s traditions, but it is certain that as a man with a mastery of words like few others, he would have cherished the bond between love, courage, and literature.

Le rire universel

Rire. Je ris très souvent. Je pense que ça arrive à tout le monde de rire. Il s’agit d’une action qui consiste à contracter les muscles du visage, changer le rythme de sa respiration et passer dans un état d’euphorie éphémère. On parle là d’une action essentiellement inoffensive et surtout très bénéfique pour le corps et l’âme de tout être humain. Je m’étais toujours dis que rire ne pouvais que faire du bien à tous : Par un simple rire, on pouvait tout changer. Hélas, on pouvait tout changer, et pour cela je dus grandir. J’observais les autres rire, je contemplais leurs mouvements, je scrutais leur état d’âme et puis je me rendais compte que derrière chaque rire, il y avait une raison pour rire. On nomme souvent cette raison ‘humour’. Quel drôle de mot !

Un matin, je me réveillais dépaysée. Pourquoi ? J’avais laissé ma vie derrière moi pour vivre la fameuse « Cambridge adventure ».  J’avais toujours cru à ce que j’appelle, ou plutôt j’appelais, le rire universel. Comme quoi le rire serait une communication internationale, une seule langue qui nous uni tous. Je pensais que rire au Liban, c’était comme rire en France, en Angleterre, au Japon ou en Ouganda. Naïve ? Oui, je le sais bien.

Alors, pour reprendre, pour une raison ou pour une autre je me retrouvais ici. Je riais toujours aussi fort, de ce même rire un peu ridicule qui a tendance à partir en fou rire au quart de tour. Je ne pourrais l’expliquer, mais rire laissait en moi un arrière-goût d’énergie, comme une sorte de décharge électrique. Pendant quelques secondes je pensais être invincible, pouvoir changer et sculpter le monde au rythme de mon rire. C’était une passion que je ne me retenais jamais de partager avec quiconque croisait mon chemin.

Un jour, je reçus un email. Un email tout aussi inutile que tous les cinq cents autres que je recevais tous les jours à Cambridge. Le hasard fit en sorte que je lise cet email. Apparemment, il existait ce que l’on appelle un ‘BME officer’ (Black and Ethnic Minorities officer). Soudainement, mon rire se transforma en amertdume. J’interrompais ma conversation et exprimais ma surprise. Pourquoi ? Cette représentation me semblait complètement irrationnelle et absurde. Je demandais des explications à celle qui était avec moi. Elle sourit. Pourquoi devrais-je bénéficier d’une représentation différente de celle d’une personne ‘blanche’ seulement parce qu’un de mes passeports était bleu ? L’absurdité de la chose me transcendait. Mon amie m’expliqua alors le concept de la représentation identitaire au Royaume Uni. Je ne vous cacherais pas mon désaccord fondamental.

Et c’est à ce moment-là que je compris que le rire universel n’existait pas et qu’il n’avait jamais existé. On ne riait pas du même ton ici. On riait sèchement, on riait banalement et surtout pas au noir. On riait de ce que je pensais inriable et ce qui me semblait hilarant était complétement tabou dans ce pays. Pourquoi est-ce que je parle du rire et de la politique de représentation identitaire dans un même article ? En France et au Liban, on rit de tout. On rit de Daesh, on rit du racisme, on rit du sexisme, on rit de sexe, on rit de la politique, on rit de la société, on rit de notre ridicule, on rit de notre histoire, on rit de nous-mêmes et des autres. On ne rit pas pour moquer, on rit soit pour survivre soit parce que l’on ne croit pas en des différences fondamentales et qu’on pense pouvoir franchir le deuil que nous impose l’Histoire. Au Liban, on rit parce qu’il faudrait mieux rire de ce qui nous fait pleurer. En France, on rit parce qu’on ne pense pas qu’il devrait y avoir une quelconque différence entre noir ou blanc, entre juif ou musulman, entre hétérosexuel ou autre… En France on pense que l’humour noir est justement la preuve que l’on a dépassé tout stade de discrimination. On pourrait rire des arabes comme on rit des blondes, on pourrait rire des noirs comme on rit de Toto. On ne rit pas pour blesser, on rit des failles humaines. On rit du monde. On rit de ce qui est ou a été une fois concret. On rit de façon inoffensive. Au Royaume Uni, on ne rit pas de ces choses-là, on a trop peur. Peur de son histoire coloniale, peur de l’erreur humaine, peur de soi-même.

Le rire noir est un descendant du socialisme. Le rire noir est autorisé ou pas selon le socialisme établit dans le pays. En France, le socialisme veut l’abolition des différences de manière officielle : on est tous pareils d’une certaine façon. Au Royaume Uni, le socialisme veut l’accentuation des différences : il faut que toute identité soit représentée. En France, on veut franchir notre histoire coloniale et théoriquement notre présent toujours discriminatoire en effaçant nos différences face aux institutions. Au Royaume Uni, on veut mettre une croix sur son passé colonial en implorant tous ceux qui ont été ou sont toujours opprimés. Les deux théories – je dis bien théories parce que les discriminations sont toujours aussi présentes en France comme au Royaume Uni – sont justifiables d’une façon ou d’une autre mais je suis partisante de la théorie que je nomme celle de l’humour noir.

La théorie de l’humour noir est la théorie qui veut que l’on puisse rire de tout. C’est la théorie qui veut abolir toutes nos différences mais faire briller notre unicité. On est tous différents et uniques d’une certaine manière mais on voudrait être égaux à tous points. Quand on rit de tout, on dépasse le stade de toute discrimination. Quand on se fonde dans la masse de l’égalité, on peut montrer sa diversité de façon plus positive. Être sans cesse en train de promouvoir une représentation identitaire c’est montrer qu’il y a une distinction entre nous selon que l’on soit blanc, arabe, asiatique, noir, hétérosexuel, transsexuel, un mélange, rien du tout ou encore tous à la fois. Vous allez me dire : on fait quoi de la discrimination ? Je vous réponds : on la combat tous ensemble et non pas par de la discrimination positive. Pourquoi ne pas avoir des représentants de tous ? Des personnes qui représenteraient les victimes de toute sorte de discrimination peu-importe leur orientation sexuelle, leur sexe, leur origine, leur couleur de peau ou encore la façon dont ils pleurent. Au Royaume-Uni, on a tellement peur de rire, on a tellement peur de discriminer qu’on devient champion de la discrimination. On insiste tellement sur les différences de chacun que l’on n’arrive plus à voir ce qui nous uni. On est tellement obsédé par la volonté de créer une représentation parfaite que l’on finit par créer de réelles distinctions. On voit la discrimination partout, même là où elle n’a pas lieu d’être. On accuse tout le monde de ne pas respecter assez qu’on finit par en avoir assez du respect et qu’on opte pour la vraie discrimination.

La théorie de l’humour noir est mon socialisme. Mon socialisme veut que l’on puisse rire de notre misère pour la dépasser, que l’on puisse rire de notre haine pour la transformer en amour, que l’on puisse rire de Trump pour le vaincre, que l’on puisse rire des arabes pour qu’ils deviennent tout comme les autres. Mon socialisme veut l’égalité des chances, mon socialisme veut des droits fondamentaux pour tous. Mon socialisme est un rire universel.

Never-ending tango / Nieustanne tango

On the re-appropriation of morality through rock and punk sub-cultures and surrealist movements in socialist Poland.
Odzyskiwanie moralności poprzez muzykę rockową, punkową i surrealistyczne ruchy w socjalistycznej Polsce.

The multitude of alternative youth underground sub-cultures in socialist Poland focused around the Jarocin rock festival, the biggest such event in the whole of the Soviet block, has allowed for the re-appropriation of bodies and the creation of a space alternative to that vested in the state. The all-controlling state’s misunderstanding of the content of these discourses, and the actions undertaken to constrain them, ended up on strengthening the underground freedom movements.

These sub-cultures created an ongoing means to exercise freedom. As Foucault argues, the re-appropriation of the body is an on-going process; thus, freedom is not achieved but exercised continuously. The ‘Never-ending Tango’—the title of Republika’s 1984 hit, symbolically refers to the on-going exercise of personal freedom in a reality where the state tries to control the private sphere; and the dialectic struggles between the official, dominant narrative and emerging, alternative morality. This created a movement which liberated young Poles from the parochialism equating the state’s particular narratives to ethics as such, and thus allowed for the redefinition of ethics, and an ongoing exercise of freedom.

Nieustanne tango
Nieustanne tango by Republika

“Chcemy być sobą”
Początki rocka i punk-rocka w socjalistycznej Polsce; sposoby postrzegania i kreowania ciała i cielesności jako głos w publicznym dialogu

Koncept „żelaznej kurtyny”, wprowadzający bariery do życia społecznego, zawsze powodował chęć patrzenia poza nią, w kierunku zachodu. Lata 50-te w Polsce naznaczone były politycznymi represjami i pokazowymi procesami. Lata 60-te przyniosły nieco rozluźnienia. W 1967 do Polski, na koncert przyjechali Rolling Stonesi i młodzi ludzie tłumnie gromadzili się przed Pałacem Kultury i Nauki, by choć przez chwilę spojrzeć, lub tym bardziej,  być blisko zachodnich idoli. Do Polski docierały okruchy kultury z zachodu. Dopiero lata 70-te i 80-te przyniosły rozkwit polskiego rocka i punku. W 1980 odbył się pierwszy Festiwal Muzyków Rockowych w Jarocinie, który zgromadził ponad 20,000 młodych ludzi.  Był to największy festiwal muzyki młodzieżowej, głównie rockowej (chociaż pojawił się tam również zespół punkowy) w państwach bloku wschodniego.  Muzyka stawała się środkiem ekspresji frustracji oraz krytyki otaczającej młodych ludzi rzeczywistości. Muzyka i zgromadzenia muzyczne były nie tyle częścią oficjalnej narracji i życia w kreowanej przez rządzącą Partię Socjalistyczną przestrzeni społecznej, stawały się negacją tej przestrzeni, odrzuceniem systemu, życiem poza nim. Muzyka, sama będąc mocnym środkiem wyrazu negowała oficjalne środki ekspresji, pozwala na priorytetyzację jednostki, wyeksponowanie jej z ogółu. System promował konformizm, pasywną akceptację rzeczywistości, ciszę i brak dialogu społecznego—muzyka dawała młodym ludziom głos w układzie zbudowanym na powszechnej zmowie milczenia.

Muzyka dawała także możliwość odzyskiwania, manifestacji posiadania  i możliwości zmieniania własnego ciała. Cielesność i ciała młodych ludzi stawały się polem do wyrażania wolności jednostki. W oficjalnej socjalistycznej ideologii podporządkowywanie się zasadom i normom estetycznym wykreowanym  przez reguły systemu, pewien konformizm ciała, był jednym ze sposobów kontrolowania i ograniczania prywatnej sfery jednostki przez władze. Wygląd i jego kreacje były kontrolowane i tonowane  przez brak dostępności tkanin i gotowej odzieży. Długie kolejki po produkty codziennej potrzeby regulowały rutynę dnia codziennego i wyznaczały jego rytm. Ludzie ustawieni w długich wężykach zlewali się w jedno, wyglądali podobnie, nosili się omalże identycznie. Bourdieu w swojej analizie kładzie duży nacisk na ciało jako pole, w którym zderzają się: władza i indywidualna siła, w którym objawia się przemoc symboliczna.  Możliwość kreacji, zmiany oraz panowanie i kontrola nad  własnym ciałem  przez jednostkę staje się więc aktem publicznym, próbą odzyskania władzy. Młodzi ludzie poprzez ingerencję we własną cielesność, sprzeciwiali się dominującej estetyce, a przez to dominującej ideologii. Skórzane kurtki i spodnie, własnoręcznie szyte ubrania, przebijanie uszu agrafkami,  krzykliwe kolory, ćwieki i metalowe ozdoby, charakteryzujące młodzież skupioną wokół środowisk rockowych i punkowych stały się symboliczną bronią w walce o odzyskanie możliwości decydowania o własnym ciele, a jednocześnie metodą sprzeciwiania się władzy.

“Parada słoni” i Pomaranczowa Rewolucja
Siła symboliki w kreowaniu alternatywnych narracji

Odniesienie do symboliki i narracji pozwala w pełni analizować „nieustanne tango” pomiędzy władzami socjalistycznej Polski a artystami, pozwala na pewną analizę re-interpretacji przestrzeni społecznej oraz dyskursu społecznego. Pomimo oficjalnych zapewnień władz, które deklarowały zapewnienie obywatelom wolności słowa i ekspresji artystycznej, w Polsce funkcjonowała cenzura, ograniczająca możliwości publikowania tekstów. Słowa krytykujące realia życia w Polsce, władzę czy system, były usuwane. To doprowadziło do rozkwitu symboliki, która efektywnie budowała nową sferę dialogu i alternatywną metodę ekspresji prowadzącą do omalże otwartego sprzeciwiania się władzy. Bunt przeciwko systemowi odbywał się jednakże w zupełnie innym wymiarze.  Symbole oraz metafory posiadały ogromna siłę wyrazu. Okulary słoneczne wokalistki rockowej Kory, nawiązujące do ciemnych okularów oszonych przez Wojciecha Jaruzelskiego, które prezentowała na każdym koncercie stały się emblematem wyrażającym sprzeciw przeciwko krępującym jednostkę ograniczeniom systemu.  Podobnie zespół Republika w swoich teledyskach nawiązywał do czarno-białej, orwellowskiej rzeczywistości. Ciekawym przykładem wykorzystania symboliki jako środka sprzeciwu, była także grupa Pomarańczowa Alternatywa, działająca we Wrocławiu i łodzi, która poprzez surrealistyczne happeningi artystyczne ośmieszała  władze. Grupa ta często odwracała, przekręcała lub ośmieszała oficjalne słownictwo i frazy nowomowy  używane przez władze w politycznym i społecznym dyskursie. Jej słynne akcje miały na celu wykpienie władzy i doprowadzenie do aresztowania za jak najbardziej absurdalne czyny. Symbolem Pomarańczowej Alternatywy stały się pomarańczowe krasnoludki, rozprzestrzeniane jako graffiti. Przykładami akcji tej grupy były kolportowane oraz umieszczane w przestrzeni publicznej slogany typu: “Boże, pobłogosław komunistów”, happeningi polegające na rozdawaniu papieru toaletowego i podpasek ośmieszające politykę ograniczania podaży produktów codziennego użytku, w tym środków higienicznych, czy słynne zatrzymanie „galopującej inflacji”, podczas którego milicja aresztowała uciekających, biegnących z transparentami „INFLACJA” członków Pomarańczowej Alternatywy.

“Nieustanne tango”
Próby odzyskania moralności poprzez kwestionowanie dominujących narracji

Subkultury w Polsce stworzyły alternatywną przestrzeń dla protestu przeciwko panującemu ustrojowi sprawowanemu przez „władzę ludową”. James Laidlaw w swoich teoriach na temat antropologii etyki rozróżnia koncept etosu i moralności. Etos jest ogólnym zapytaniem czym jest właściwe życie, moralność zaś stanowi konkretną odpowiedź. Poprzez uwolnienie asocjacji socjalistycznej moralności z absolutem jakim jest etos, subkultury w Polsce pozwoliły na wykreowanie alternatywnej moralności. Oficjalne władze promowały narrację, w której dominująca moralność zrównana była z etosem, a subkultury pozwoliły na zerwanie tej więzi poprzez alternatywna ekspresję artystyczną, która umożliwiała definiowanie i wyrażanie siebie. Foucault dowodzi, ze wolność nie jest celem, ale cały czas dziejącym sie procesem. Wolności nie można osiągnąć, trzeba ją cały czas aktywnie praktykować. Rock, punk i artystyczne subkultury, funkcjonujące w socjalistycznej Polsce pozwoliły na aktywne „uprawianie”  wolności. Unaocznia to więc sposób, w jaki subkultury w socjalistycznej Polsce podważały i kwestionowały oficjalną narrację mocno ją przez to osłabiając. Wolność stała się procesem i praktyką, działaniem, nie zaś celem do osiągnięcia.

YOUR BODY IS JUST SITTING THERE

My family left Europe generations ago, fleeing from anti-semitism and economic oppression. For an American, that kind of suffering can feel (literally) far away, a part of the distant past. Returning to Europe as a student, however—first to France and now to England—makes it feel very recent and visceral. With ‘YOUR BODY IS JUST SITTING THERE’, I wanted to think about what it means to be American and Jewish in Europe, a place my relatives were desperate to escape from, and the intimate, physical ways in which alienation and exile manifest themselves.

1.

mostly i do not think about my Polish relatives and your Polish relatives

& who took up residence in whose houses but

sometimes, then, i do
think about it

2.

there was a memorial for it
( )
in berlin but no bodies

hundreds of gravestones and no bodies
was that the joke

german children kept playing
on the stones so i knew
at least something was still alive

3.

now it is Sabbath &
i continue to work

4.

remember when we were in the orchard
when i was in the orchard

it makes me so sad to
see the last light turned out

5.

what does it feel like
he asks
to be beautiful?

mina loy: ‘Beautiful
half-hour of being a mere woman
[…]
Understanding nothing of man’

6.

i talk about studying in france,
forget to mention
how i was cold for weeks
in july in the south

how the missing,
my host mother said,
made me cold

i wore sweaters—
i wrote about blue fingers—

how i lost my sense of taste,
avoided food,
then went to morocco

8.

i don’t miss new york but i miss something
or something misses me

9.

your body is just sitting there
raw exchange value
the way
your body is just SITTING THERE

10.

it is Sabbath &
i continue to work

The Politics of Spanish Monuments: Dictatorship, Democracy and Colonialism in Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor

Salamanca or, La Dorada as it is known by many, is a city brimming with some of the most eminent jewels of Spanish architecture. One could say that Salamanca, in the northwest of the Spain, is an emblem for a wider trend throughout its province, Castilla y León; home to one of the most prestigious universities in the country, it is a charming Gothic patchwork, with a plethora of buildings with glowing yellow sandstone that almost tints the vast blueness of the sky above. Many sites of interest come to mind: the stunning New Cathedral, the University building’s façade, the Convent of San Estebán… but none so much as the striking Plaza Mayor, the beating heart of the city and, indeed, the royalty of this moda castellanoleonesa. This grand example of the Spanish conception of a plaza is firmly in touch with its historical and artistic roots in the aesthetic it projects, but is also part of every-day salamantina life. The square, like many of the city’s monuments, is magnificently lit up at nightfall, 365 days a year, evoking a warm and inviting ambiance even in the depths of December. Indeed, it is an essential part of day-to-day Salamanca, an intersection between the residential and shopping zones, and the stylised old town. It experiences the daily trajectories of many and is even the location for public events. In November, the plaza glowed purple, rather than its usual golden warmth, in solidarity with the Día Internacional contra la Violencia de Género, and every December 16th it is host to eager university students as they celebrate a premature Nochevieja with their classmates before returning home for the Christmas holidays.

Yet the rich history of the site has, in recent years, come into conflict with the present. Comprised of four pabellones, the square pays tribute to the faces of the Spanish past, with each wall adorned with numerous medallones, or plaques in honour of various historical figures. The iconography of the Pabellón de Petrineros is probably the most varied of all, documenting profiles ranging from the literary celebrities of Cervantes and Unamuno to religious figures such as Santa Teresa Jesús—even the Duke of Wellington makes an appearance. The plaques of the Pabellón Consistorial, on the other hand, have experienced a fraught history, some of them being removed during the Revolution of 1868 and others disappearing during the Second Republic. It does now, however, feature allegories of the First and Second Spanish Republics and proudly displays plaques in honour of an important monarch in the democratic history of Spain, the recently-abdicated Juan Carlos I and his wife Sofía.

These familiar faces of democracy have, however, been neighbours to a very different figure ever since their arrival at the plaza—but not for much longer. The medallón which commemorates General Francisco Franco, the dictator from 1936 until his death in 1975, is to be removed after a unanimous vote by the Comisión Territorial de Patrimonio Cultural. While exactly how the plaque will be removed is still to be revealed, the commission announced that they would do so with the aim of guaranteeing no harm to the architecture of the plaza.

But why take such a step, over 42 years after the death of the General, who remains an important figure in Spanish history? Answers to this question are plentiful. Firstly, the medallón has always been rather misplaced on the Pabellón Real, which, prior its commission, had always been reserved exclusively for Spanish monarchs from across the ages; his neighbours include Isabel I & Fernando II de Aragón, Alonfso XI, Carlos I de España… the list goes on. Thus, one powerful argument, albeit not the central reasoning behind the decision, is the fact that the plaque categorically does not belong on the pabellón.

A further logic behind the commission’s vote concerns the conservation of the plaza from an artistic-historical perspective. Over the years, a number of restoration attempts have been carried out on the medallón in the aftermath of acts of vandalism, most poignantly those carried out on the 20th November (the anniversary of the dictator’s death). Consequently, the members of the commission maintained that the plaque had been so changed over time due to these restorations that it no longer concurs with, “las suficientes razones artísticas, arquitectónicas o artístico-religiosas protegidas por la ley.”

A final reason presents itself as more problematic still, as it concerns the fraught historical and cultural significance of Franco in current Spanish national imagination. The key question is: how does he fit in?

The memory of the dictatorship, which ended a mere 40 years ago, means that it is still alive for many, particularly those who experienced it personally. Indeed, it is unsurprising that there should exist Spaniards who remain in support of Francoism given the very length of the regime and the illegality of political opposition throughout its duration, coupled with an air-tight propaganda machine. Yet since the Transición began, shortly after the Franco’s death, there has been an outpouring of reactions against public monuments in his honour. Indeed, in 2007, the government prohibited official public references to Franco; thus, government buildings and streets named after El Caudillo reverted to their original names, and memorials to him were removed, the last of which being an equestrian statue in Santander removed in 2008. Just last year, the city of Malaga also revoked honours and distinctions concerning him, including the titles of “Hijo predilecto, Hijo adoptivo y Alcalde honorario.”

These conflicting associations are symbolically summarised in the very fact that, while the Spanish national anthem, the Marcha Real, is no longer sang with the lyrics introduced under Franco, no new lyrics have been introduced to replace them due to a lack of consensus. The decision to remove the plaque, conversely, ‘tenía que ser tomada por unanimidad,’ according to historian María José Turrión, a member of the commission. Thus, for the commission, the answer to the question is, he does not fit in, be it artistically or architecturally, categorically, or as a figure worthy of depiction in this national emblem to Spanish history. The law introduced in 2007, known as the Ley de Memoria Histórica, sought to recognise and amplify the rights and established mediums in favour of those who suffered persecution of violence during the war and dictatorship (paraphrased trans.). Turrión went on to defend the decision as, “un acto de justicia y de coherencia con el Estado de Derecho y la democracia”. And yet, adjacent to the Pabellón Real, the Pabellón de San Martín, boasts an array of conquistadores, important figures in Spain’s colonisation of the Americas such as Cristóbal Colón and Hernán Cortés. A few kilometres further west in Salamanca, as in many Spanish cities, there lies the Plaza de Colón, with a monument of the conquistador as its centrepiece. With colonisation still largely viewed as a major scientific and geographical discovery in Spanish history, it seems that it is not only recent history with which the country has yet to come to terms.

I went to an Extra Virgin Olive Oil Master Class and had an o-lively time.

The event spontaneously popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. Half joking, half intrigued, I put myself down as “interested.” When a friend also expressed curiosity, we decided to book our tickets and give it a try.

All we knew was that it was an “extra virgin olive oil master class” led by Dr. Alfredo Marasciulo and hosted by ITMAW UK at Emmanuel College; canapés and wine were promised to follow. With the exception of these few details, our first impressions would be completely uninformed. We were immediately greeted with the sight of dozens of unlabelled miniature olive oil vials, ranging in colour from opaque jade and clear gold to almost black. We were also greeted by the sound of animated spoken Italian; all of the organisers were native speakers, as well as about half of the audience. Others were simply Italophiles. As an MML student, I considered my participation a part of my academic approfondimento, a word used in Italian schools that literally signifies “deepening” but is more similar to our concept of extra credit. A warm welcome was provided, and, of course, complimentary Prosecco.

Once the master class began—in true Italian fashion, at a languid tempo and
only after a convivial introduction—Dr. Marasciulo began to speak of the importance of extra virgin olive oil with authority and pride. Truly knowing what defines the quality of olive oil, he emphasised, was a skill that many pretend to have but do not actually possess. He even admitted to playing a plainclothes game in grocery stores, innocuously asking fellow shoppers for their advice on which olive oil to buy. Often they gave confident responses, without actually knowing what features made an olive oil so good. For example, unlike wine, the newer the olive oil—the more recently pressed—the better. In the first hour of the lecture, Marasciulo broke down the audience’s misconceptions of olive oil, discussing qualities such as acidity, grades, and pressing. We then moved onto the tasting portion of the class. We had expected to accompany our samples with bread; Marasciulo told us that the true hardcore way of tasting olive oil was in its pure form.

And, just like the importance of quality in extra virgin olive oil, this was no quick process. First, the sample cup had to be warmed up, which can be done most easily between the palms of one’s hands. Then we had to smell the olive oil: not a quick whiff, but rather a proper inhalation. Finally, to taste the olive oil, it had to be “aerated.” Aerating the olive oil is more or less equivalent to slurping it in through the teeth, an act which Marasciulo said may seem, “come si dice… maleducato?,” but nonetheless necessary for true degustation.

We sampled eight or nine shots of pure olive oil, and then – as a reward for our stamina – four more with bread. We tried everything from three-day-old presses to a 1997 lampante, an extra virgin olive oil unsuitable for consumption. We looked for notes of cut grass and for a slight burn in the throat, all signs of freshness and high quality. Marasciulo memorably described one slightly older, but high quality sample as “an old, but beautiful, mature lady.” Inevitably, as the class progressed the atmosphere became more and more relaxed. There was something comical and surreal about collectively slurping olive oil, to then nod emphatically in agreement that “this one had the aroma of a newly cut lawn.”

And yet here we were, exploring what was perhaps, along with wine, one of the most frequently associated images of Italian culture: freshly pressed olive oil as a ubiquitous and vital part of Italian food or, more broadly, the nation itself. As cliché as it may seem, the Italian synonymy with olive oil reflects a greater pride in the artistry and craftsmanship of national produce – an attention to detail that can be seen throughout in the Italian traditions of art, fashion, and food alike. From Florentine leather jackets to the meticulous technique of the Venetian school or, of course, a bottle of olive oil produced by a small grove in Puglia, Italian products have a longstanding tradition of precision and artisanal quality. Marasciulo’s emphatic remarks echoed this sense of national dignity, just as our seemingly amusing evaluations stemmed from a genuine respect and awe for the Italian qualità di vita.

When the session came to a close, we had become completely immersed in the jovial atmosphere of olive oil tasting, alternating between conversations and comments in Italian and English. It was an intense three hours of detailed information that I could not have previously imagined; lampante, for example, is a word I would have never thought to affiliate with the pungent musty scent of a clear, black and inedible oil. It was a Saturday afternoon well-spent: one that celebrated a shared experience of Italian culture and language, the kaleidoscopic range of olive oil samples, copious chilled white wine, and, of course, a passion to learn.

Original artwork by the author.

Cray-cray but totes legit: totes is like totes grammats. For reals.

You’ve probs heard totes being used by like, people, maybe you, which is like totes norms, but what you probs haven’t realised is that forming totes words uses your knowledge of English grammar. In fact, every time you create a totes word, several rules of grammar come into play. Though I happen to think this is totes amaze, mabes you’re like whatevs, grammar is like sooooo boring.

Well luckily, even though totes is grammatical there’s no grammar to learn here: you very likely already know these rules subconsciously even if you don’t use totes yourself, but like, mabes you haven’t consciously thought about the phonology of totes before lolz. And as you can see, it’s not just totes: probs, fairs, deece, ceebs, and for reals are just some of the members of this class of words which end in an S or a Z sound. The earliest word of this kind recorded in the OED is obvs, appearing in the 80s, and now these words are appearing all the time, impervious to widespread but useless opprobrium. Amaze.

probably → probs
fair → fairs
definitely → deffs
joking → jokes
for real → for reals
maybe → mabes
mebbe → mebs
whatever → whatevs
lol → lolz
sorry → soz
totally → totes
CBA (seebeeay) → ceebs
same → sames
possibly → poss
decent → deece
amazing → amaze
delicious → delish
awkward → awks
later → laters

How to totes (for the lolz)

  1. Take all the syllables in the word up to the syllable carrying the main stress, in bold.
  2. Make the coda (final consonants) of the stressed syllable as large as possible using the onset (initial consonants) of the following syllable, in italics.
  3. Add Z to the coda unless this makes an illegal (impossible) coda. If the coda ends with a voiceless sound (pronounced without the vocal folds vibrating) then the Z also becomes voiceless, changing to S.
  4. An adjective immediately after totes may well also undergo this process too lol.
  • In British English, Rs aren’t pronounced in codas, so we get soz, not sorz. On the other hand, why we get laters and not lates remains unclear (awks).

Lightbulb Moment

Lightbulb Moment
Compound nouns. In passing conversations on the German language there is no grammatical notion that causes more astonishment (read: polite interest) than the legends of single words spanning forty yards, rumoured to contain three different kinds of choking sound. Even here, in its vocabulary, German culture cannot escape the looming shadow of ‘efficiency’; it is somehow seen as unromantic to string words together so plainly, rather than providing each concept with an individual label that is supposedly concise, unique and autonomous (read: derived from Latin). In Lightbulb Moment, I explore the visual metaphors often employed in compound nouns across both German and English, in the hope of revealing the whimsy that is so often overlooked beneath the umlauts and consonant clusters.

Les Flaneurings d’une Fille à Paris

Thoughts of love gather like dust in the attic of my mind and won’t be swept away. They cower like cobwebs in the corner, between boxes of broken promises, seeking shadow and shade at the first sight of dawn. Since love has knocked on my door and so often ran away, it is hard to believe that it really exists at all. It seems not everyone can hold a needle nor has the patience, never mind the skill, to sew a heart up so full of patchwork as mine, but French men don’t love like English boys do.

Sometimes monsieur and I don’t understand a single word of what each other says, and in some situations this proves useful. The language of love is different in each land, and communication difficulties create a helpful catch-net for the overspill of an over-eager heart. I’m allowed to call him ‘mon bien-aimé’, which is ‘my beloved’, after just one month because my palms have never felt the weight of these terms of endearment before. It’s a good excuse. These words are suddenly pearls that I’m scared to drop, placed in the palm of my hand I stammer and shake, the light they reflect is blinding, it scatters too far and falls short at my feet. I explain that it’s the fault of the French professor for forgetting to verse us the art of love, that we never had any lessons on how to address someone to whom we are attracted with amorous intent. This is followed by the innocent if slightly intentional hint that the only words of this kind that I know are ‘copain’ and ‘copine’, which happen to be boyfriend and girlfriend. At any rate, it worked. I’ve bagged myself a beautiful French boyfriend, a moustached connoisseur of cheese and wine who brings me croissants back from the boulangerie. I’ve never been so spoilt, though he insists on teaching me how to ski and eat snails.

In his arms, my heart is a beast raging out of control, thrashing its weight against the bone-white barbed-wire cage of a chest, but the futility of words frustrates me, particularly with the impossible task of trying to share it all in a foreign tongue. If I pick a flower and pluck each petal I will find out if he loves me, or if he loves me not, but l’amour à la francaise is much more advanced. Each petal that is picked brings love into blossom or bloom: “il m’aime un peu, il m’aime beaucoup, il m’aime passionnément, il m’aime à la follie, il ne m’aime pas de tout”. Whilst the English version may be bog-standard and boring, I either love you or I blatantly don’t, at least it is built upon the concrete structures of certainty that won’t crumble as soon as the sun comes out. As the hammer of my heartbeat threatens to rip through, tearing skin to shreds, my heart burst its banks in one sharp gasp: “C’est possible.” I am a bomb waiting to explode, burning from the inside out, a fire in my throat from the embers of words I never spoke: “C’est possible … que je t’aime.” If I have learned anything it is that the heart cannot be tamed, so don’t force it into hibernation.

When it is time to return to England, I wake and weep silent tears at his shoulder, trying to drown out the hum of his heartbeat though it can still be heard. The promise of love unstitching itself from my heart, again, I hadn’t anticipated that I would be this sad. It is like the sky has cracked and all the stars have slipped through. I wish I could stay. I wish I could sew the words “c’est possible que je t’aime” into a blanket, and wrap it round him to keep him warm through the winter. Sadly, the moment never lasts long enough, it flutters from the hand. Whilst I will return to Paris in just over one month, as after all, many more months of my year abroad await us, it feels like a lifetime and I will miss him every day. In any case, he takes me to the station and promises to be waiting on the platform when I come back.

The Rise of Russian Organic Farming

Vladimir Putin is known for many things, but an advocate of environmentally friendly, organic food is probably not one of them. Yet in his speech to Russia’s Federal Assembly in December 2015, Putin makes his stance clear: “Russia is able to become the largest global supplier of healthy, ecologically clean and high-quality food which some Western producers have long lost, especially given the fact that demand for such products in the world market is steadily growing.” Whilst realising that there are other factors behind this statement beyond sheer commitment to ethical food production, Putin acknowledges the potential of Russia’s agricultural industry in a burgeoning market. What has brought about this stance?

When it comes to talk of Russia’s food industry, the first thing that might well spring to mind currently is the food embargo. In retaliation to Western imposed sanctions after the annexation of Crimea, at the start of August 2014, Russia implemented a ban on agricultural products, including meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and dairy products, whose country of origin had introduced sanctions against Russia. There were a few indicators that some were finding ways around the embargo, with reports of apple imports from Switzerland (not included in the sanctions) swiftly increasing 400-fold and a billboard in Samara, the city where I spent my year abroad, advertising ‘real Italian cheese’ long past the introduction of the ban. However, the embargo has undeniably had a huge impact on the agricultural industry in Russia, opening a space in the market for domestically grown produce.

This space in the market equally applies to organic products, which are also included under the embargo’s remit. Whilst organic products certainly do not hold the same proportion of the market as they do in countries like Germany, the market does continue to grow steadily, which is impressive considering the unstable economic climate in Russia. The Association of Russian Farms and Agricultural Cooperatives (AKKOR) estimates that there is a potential market for organic production worth 300-400 billion rubles (£2.7-3.6 billion). And this growing, but still relatively untapped market—there are only 70 organic farms in Russia—has been spotted by a few adventurous former city-slickers, who are now making up what Forbes has termed ‘the new wave of farmers’.

I spent a week helping on a farm run by such a ‘new wave farmer’, Bio-farm Bolotovo, 120km south of Moscow in the Tul’skaia region of Russia. The farmer, Pavel, was a former deputy financial director of a big transport company, but had left to become an organic farmer. It was a small farm, hidden away a few kilometres from the nearest village, surrounded by apparently endless forests. They kept a few goats and sheep, but the farm mainly grew vegetables, such as cabbages, beans and potatoes alongside the Russian culinary staple—dill. A handful of workers lived in the two wooden houses, but especially during the summer months, the farm was desperately short of hands to keep on top of weeding and dill harvesting, so they look for volunteers, to come and stay for a week or so to help. The people on the farm made for an interesting mix: Pavel, the businessman turned agronomist; one Muscovite who had come as a retreat out of busy, urban life; my friend and I, two foreigners taking the opportunity for a bit of alternative travel and a family of workers from Ukraine who did not seem to care much for organic food. The farm also had regular visits from various journalists eager to find out more about this organic movement. While I was there, a group of young hipster journalists from one of the trendy Moscow journals picked through the mud in their pristine trainers and looked taken aback at the outdoor toilet—the farm was a world away from the lives of the affluent, urban, ecologically aware consumers that make up the target market. But then again, that is surely not unique to Russia.

The farm is the only one in Russia to be accredited with the German based International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). But as mentioned above, according to AKKOR there are already 70 farms producing organic food. This highlights one of the issues in determining what is organic or not. There are many accrediting bodies with differing criteria and application processes, and the Russian government has recently introduced its own law seeking to facilitate organic farming. What this means is that it can be hard to define and standardise what is organic and what is not. After all, the babushka at the local market selling cabbages she has grown at her dacha may well be just as organic as the certified cabbage you buy at an eco-shop for a higher price, but then again she may well have a penchant for dousing her cabbages in all manner of chemicals.

It is safe to say that there is a distance for Russia to go before it can fulfil Putin’s vision as the world-leading supplier of ecologically clean food, with Russian organic enterprises still occupying only a small part of the domestic agricultural market, let alone competing on the export market. But only a fool writes off Russia and in this case, its organic farmers.