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.

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.

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.

Book Review: Im Westen nichts Neues

This book is intended neither as an accusation nor as a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war—even those of it who survived the shelling.
—Erich Maria Remarque

The reason why I decided to read Im Westen nichts Neues was a little naive. Aged sixteen and studying twentieth century history at school I was curious to read about the experience of the war from a German perspective. How often are we constrained to our own country’s version of events? I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, perhaps some portrayal of nationalistic fervour, slander against the English or a platoon of ferocious German men-turned-soldiers. Yet ironically after a few pages, one of the things that struck me most was that the narrative could have been written from the point of view of a British, French, or American soldier: the daily experience of war, the suffering, was no different.

Nonetheless, this is also a novel with a close focus, shedding light on the impact of the war upon the ordinary Private—a member of the ‘lost generation’. Our narrator is the direct, albeit sensitive 19 year old Paul Baümer, who has enlisted in the army in 1914 with his friends, goaded, initially, by a sense of ideological patriotism, and the spirit of adventure. It is this scenario which gives Baümer’s story its particular poignancy. Emerging straight from their school classroom, these boys experience the harrowing transition from students to soldiers as they face the blood, mud and massacre of trench warfare. Friendship is certainly one of the most uplifting themes of the novel. Remarque examines the enduring camaraderie which could stop a soldier taking his own life, or which could carry him bleeding, a ‘splinter of shrapnel in the head’ through a hellish wasteland.

Baümer’s home leave is an especially intriguing part of the novel. Like many of his fellow soldiers, he is unable to reconnect with his past life. His family doesn’t understand him, and their sympathies cannot help him. How can they? War seems to exist in a time-zone of its own. Returning home from the front he gazes upon the books, notes and letters which he once treasured, now devoid of meaning for him; there is no redemptive power to be salvaged from those pages. They are merely shadows of his past self: ‘words, words, words-they can’t reach me…’

The final lines of the novel are damning, but not out rightly cruel. Remarque dwindles between exploring the degenerative effect of war and the solace of finding peace in death. Baümer’s first person narration then abruptly changes to the third person. This switch of pronoun hits us hard. Baümer is snatched away from us and from his narrative. He is no longer the observer, but the observed; he becomes an outsider to his own story:

“He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so still and quiet…that there was nothing new to report on the western front”

After reading Im Westen nichts Neues I was left feeling restless, saddened and a little empty. I began to research Erich Remarque’s life, which is truly fascinating and gives us a new insight into his masterpiece. Remarque was born in Germany in 1898 and experienced first-hand the horrific ordeal of life on the Western Front. His account is honest and realistic. When the Nazis had risen to power, and 10 years after the publication of the novel, they stripped Remarque of his German citizenship and later executed his sister. Perhaps most shocking of all is that the Nazis banned and publicly burnt Im Westen nichts Neues, seeing it as a betrayal of the German soldier. His novel, testament to the supposed “the war to end all wars”, was thus cast aside only to give way to a second war of mass genocide. A hundred years on from one of the deadliest conflicts in history, I urge you to read Im Westen nichts Neues. Wartime heroism never tasted so bitter.

Shunned Exile to Shining Example: Jules Dassin’s Rififi 60 Years on

13th April 2015 marks the 60th anniversary of the initial 1955 French release of Jules Dassin’s Rififi (Du rififi chez les hommes) which, now regarded by many as a film noir classic, has continued to serve as an inspiration for filmmakers from François Truffaut and Stanley Kubrick through to contemporary directors such as Quentin Tarantino.

Renowned for its 28-minute heist sequence free from both dialogue and music and its innovative parabolic structure which places the heist at the heart of the film, Rififi is a seminal work in the film noir genre.

However, Jules Dassin remains anything but a household name; blacklisted by the American government in the late 40s and early 50s and with Rififi banned in several countries, Dassin both threatened the Hollywood superpowers and provided a shining example for the Nouvelle Vague, the film noir genre and numerous directors from all over the globe.

Born in the USA in 1911 to a Russian Jewish family, Dassin joined the Communist Party USA in his early 20s, only to leave after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, a non-aggression pact made between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Following WWII, Dassin began to make a name for himself as one of the principal figures in the film noir genre, yet his career in American cinema was soon to be cut short. His leftist political stance led to his being blacklisted under the McCarthyite policies of the American State Department, his denouncers were fellow filmmakers Ed Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle. Dassin then struggled to find employment as a director, the US distribution companies preventing the distribution of any film associated with blacklisted artists.

But, upon his return to Paris, Dassin was to have a remarkable change in fortune. Already recognised in France as one of the important figures in American film noir, the continuous rejection of Dassin by the figureheads of American cinema helped Dassin to find work; he was supported by the French directors’ guild thanks to French director Jacques Becker.

In 1954, Dassin was offered the chance to direct a film adaptation of Auguste Le Breton’s novel Du rififi chez les hommes. Although disgusted by the cruelty of the novel and its inherent racism, Dassin accepted the job as he was in need of employment. Dassin wrote the screenplay in six days, changing much of the novel’s content, using the plot and its characters more as a starting point from which he could depart and create a film noir classic.

The distinction between the novel and the film could not be starker; a young François Truffaut, the now famous film critic and filmmaker, claimed that ‘out of the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have ever seen’.

He changed the nationality of the rival gangsters not to American, as the producers had hoped, but to French, albeit with the German name of Grutter.

Disliking the cruelty of the novel, Dassin placed an emphasis on the humanity of his characters; thus the film does not end with the heist but with its fallout, focussing on the relationships and fates of the gangsters after their betrayal by Cesar ‘le Milanais’ (played by Dassin himself).

Such an emphasis has influenced filmmakers ever since, most evidently the first feature film of Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs (1992), which neglects to show the heist scene altogether, focussing rather on its aftermath.

Dassin also focussed heavily upon the heist itself, which in fact played a minor role in the novel, splitting the narrative into three main parts: the build-up to and planning of the heist, the heist itself, and its aftermath.

In fact, it is impossible to discuss Rififi without mentioning that sequence: those 28 minutes sans dialogue or music in which Tony’s gang (Tony being the protagonist) carries out a meticulously planned theft from a Parisian jewellers. The tension is extraordinarily palpable. The music stops, not a word is spoken, the spectator desperately craves some form of sound to break the silence. Yet any sound is just as intolerable as the silence which it shatters: a stray note cast on a piano; the infrequent thud of hammer on chisel; the restrained wheezy cough of the sickly Tony; the prolonged outburst of a power-drill; the scratching, screeching and scraping of metal upon metal; the final, solid thump of a mallet.

The film can, to some extent, be read as an allegorical account of Dassin’s own exile: we learn that Tony has served five years in prison for theft, around the same amount of time that Dassin had been out of work; Tony’s betrayal by Cesar ‘le Milanais’ resembles the betrayal of Dassin by Dmytryk and Tuttle; the death of Cesar comes with Tony’s admission that he rather liked the Italian, echoing Dassin’s sentiments towards his fellow filmmakers; and Tony’s final heroic act is perhaps a symbol of Dassin’s accomplishment of having finally directed again, despite the attempts of the US State Department.

The parabolic structure of Rififi and, it must be added, Robert Huston’s Asphalt Jungle, changed the approach not only to film noir but to the art of filmmaking as a whole but it was Rififi‘s focus on the humanity and heroism of its underdog protagonist which served as an inspiration for the Nouvelle Vague and marked a distinction between the traditional film noir of the USA and that of France.

Nouvelle Vague critics such as François Truffaut used Dassin as a shining example of their politique des Auteurs, championing directors who used cinematic apparatus in the same way a novelist was able to use a pen.

Although reportedly banned in a number of countries (such as Finland and Mexico) for fear it provided a detailed and accurate account of how to plan and carry out the perfect heist, Rififi, along with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 masterpiece Les Diaboliques opened up the American market to European film.

Despite Hollywood’s previous attempts to quash Dassin’s involvement in the world of cinema, Rififi was released in the USA in 1956 and was loved by the critics. The film won Dassin the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955 and, despite attempts to lure him back to the USA (on the condition that he would renounce his communist past), Dassin stayed in Europe for the majority of his life thereafter, continuing to direct films until his last release, Circle of Two, in 1981.

Dassin died in Greece, where he had lived for over 30 years, at the age of 96 in March 2008.

Coffee Cooling: Café Culture in Valencia’s Coolest Barrio

How cool is too cool? I am a strong advocate of café culture, I love it. Before coming to Spain I spent many a summer’s weekend trawling London from North to South, East to West in search of the best spaces for coffee, study and chat.

I was convinced coming to Valencia spelt the end of that short-lived career. Instead, it has lived on, the service is just in good old español, the translation of which is work itself. I should have known this would be the case when I visited my new pueblo in June 2014. My best friend and outgoing resident Cambridge MMLer in Valencia took me to Dulce de Leche; it was all I loved about a good café and more. Splendiferous homemade cakes and quiches were stockpiled behind glass and the yellow top-of-the-range coffee machine gleamed majestically in the corner. Issues of Kinfolk lifestyle magazine hung from the walls and potted plants were on every table inside and out. I was sold. I was determined to live as close to this reverie as possible.

This meant looking for a home in Ruzafa, a former ‘immigrant area’. I did not know it in June 2014 but as seems to be the trend, Ruzafa was and in many ways still is the site or perhaps the victim of a gentrification which is sweeping its way through Europe’s once no-go zones. Dulce de Leche was only just the beginning—the wooden-fronted Sushi Room across the road should have been yet another giveaway.

Now, just months later, there is an abundance of Dulce de Leche-esque establishments and they just keep coming. These days, Ruzafa is known to locals as one of the “lugares más chulos” of the city and to tourists familiar with other global hipster hubs as the Soho of Valencia. Much like Soho for me, I’m beginning to tire of the cool. Every Sunday I go for brunch and almost every two weeks there is a new option, some independent start-up, defiantly individual and industrially bare save for the scattering of art show and bikram yoga flyers—admittedly, both things I enjoy but as these shops continue to pop up, I can’t help but feel like it’s all slightly contrived.

I like cafés, yes. I like culture, yes. I love café culture, yes. However, I also appreciate character. Where is the individualism if everything is the same and not even comfortable? It breaks my heart to type that if I’m completely honest with myself and with you, dear reader and quite possibly, fellow café-goer: The novelty of hipster chic minimalist coffee bars is definitely wearing off. Occasionally, a few get it right in Ruzafa with a welcoming mix of Home and Edge… Hedgey if you will: Bluebell Coffee Co., LaLa Land, Café Autor to add name to glory. And, for as busy as popular and busy as it gets, I will of course always keep un espacio dulce in my heart for the original Café simple. Still, more and more, try as I might to fight it, I’m left feeling cold and wanting more every time I try somewhere new, despite the warmth of the soya cappuccino between my hands. Probably because it’s just not big enough, no coffee here is big enough.

At least true connoisseurs of good coffee can rest assured that whilst their surroundings might be impersonal bordering on institutional, what’s in their mug is a more positive reflection of its brutally reduced environment since the Spaniards really do seem to stand by quality over quantity when it comes to their daily caffeine boost. As if the drastic drop reduction in general tamaño was not enough, the cortado, the smallest and strongest coffee of all—usually made from a quality blend, is the go-to choice. No watered-down chain-style ventis to nurse for hours here…unless you—like I—have mastered the art of the Bootleg Americano AKA the cortado-sneakily-added-to-an-extra-cup-of-boiling-water.

Now to sit with my concoction and ponder where-in lies my next obsession. Perhaps the realms of fine dining and tapas beyond tourism.

The Fallas: a Festival of Fire

The five day festival of Las Fallas takes place annually in Valencia and marks the coming of Spring. Each neighbourhood constructs a giant, grotesque and often satirical work of art that will then be burnt in the culmination of the festival in the spirit of ‘out with the old, in with the new.’ Every March thousands of tourists descend upon Spain’s third largest city to experience a once in a lifetime assault on the senses.

The Fallas has to be experienced first hand in order to capture the true feel of a city that comes alive for five days and which erases the word sleep from its dictionary for the course of the festivities. Ross, an Erasmus student from Cambridge exclaims, ‘‘the city quite literally erupts into festival mode with constant exploding fireworks, brass bands and parties. It’s amazing!’’

Valencia during Las Fallas reinforces the Spanish stereotype of non-stop fiesta with the emergence of outdoor discos, pop up Mojito stands (beware the Spaniards aren’t frugal with their alcohol), firework displays, processions of Falleras (girls in traditional outfits worth thousands of Euros) and finally the incessant sound of children and excited adults launching fireworks and firecrackers in the street. Be prepared to sprint at the sight of a firecracker being thrown directly at you.

From the beginning of March every day at 2pm sharp a Mascletà takes place in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. The ground shakes as hundreds of petardos or firecrackers are set off in rhythm, filling the skies with the pungent smell of gunpowder and your ears with the ruckus of unrelenting explosions.

Tradition is extremely important to the Spaniards who despite their economic difficulties put on the most extravagant spectacle bringing Valencia to a standstill. Ana, a student at the University of Valencia explains, ‘the Fallas are what distinguish us from other parts of Spain even within the autonomous Valencian Community. For years we’ve continued to follow the traditions of our ancestors and whilst parties are a highlight of the festivities, tradition is equally as important and there are many religious events such as the offering of flowers to the Virgin Mary.’

Bittersweet best describes the Fallas. Whilst the Falleras might cry at the sight of the burning Fallas (there’s no health and safety here), I’ll be glad when the madness that has invaded the city is over. The festival is definitely not for the faint hearted but if you’re in search of an edge of your seat, high energy experience then the Fallas are not to be missed. Now commences the city’s week long hangover…