Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Urban Diary

As soon as I come out of London Bridge tube station the late morning winter’s breeze hits me. There is a freshness in the air, a chill that hints at colder temperatures ahead and yet the sun’s presence suggests (misleadingly) warmth.

I turn left on to Borough High Street, spot the cross through the bare tree branches and know that I’ve arrived. Borough Market beckons me.

This is a part of London of which I’ve heard much but to which I’ve never been. Following two years of disruption caused by Network Rail’s decision to carry out some construction work in the area, the market has just re-opened its doors recently.

I thread my way in amongst the stalls. At one of the entrances I’m greeted by the smell and sight of a beautifully cooked Spanish paella. It is a real piece of art. I ask the man behind the counter if he is Spanish himself. No, Polish, he answers. I smile at him and regret not knowing the Polish expression for “thank you for keeping the Hispanic tradition alive”.

Once inside the market the traders vie for everyone’s attention. At the Free From Bakehouse I ask Caroline Aherne, the owner, if she has any dairy-, egg- and nut-free cake I could buy for my daughter. She has but sadly it’s the same banana cake my little one is so good at cooking herself. My luck changes for the better at the Chocolicious stall. Hayleigh Bazelya is an expert in her field and she has the right product for me: half a dozen bonbons made of pure chocolate with neither milk, nor egg, nor nuts in them elegantly wrapped.  At two quid per bag, it feels like a snip. Now it’s the turn for my wife, my son and me.

At the Ion Pattiserie I find exactly what I’m looking for: a thick, brick-like, almond cake, with a soft cream centre. The owner, Georgeta Decuseara (or her husband, for it is a bloke who serves me) is also talkative, solicitous and courteous. I buy three slices which set me back just over a fiver. It’s time to have lunch I tell myself.

I stop at La Porteña where I simultaneously hear the traders speaking in Spanish to each other and spot a mate gourd sitting on a table. They’re both Argentinian. Their empanadas (pasties) are just a couple of quid and look the business. Yet, after having some small talk with them, I turn around and let my nose dictate the way. It leads me to the German Deli Ltd. I buy a gigantic sausage with plenty of Sauerkraut, mustard and ketchup.

I have spent just over an hour at Borough Market and yet I have covered just one third of the area. I make a mental note to return soon. I would like to visit the De Calabria stall where they sell soppressata, one of Italy’s more popular salamis. D’Issa is another option with its wild array of products from Croatia. Similarly, I would like to experiment with some of the spices sold by SpiceMountain.

But for now, I head out of the market on what has become a bright, February winter’s afternoon.

© 2013

Photos by the blog author

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 3rd March at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Today for the fifth time this week (that is, if the weather’s nice) I will make my legs and body hurt. I will make my nose so runny that snot will be coming out of it in buckets (I do beg your pardon; you might be having your breakfast whilst reading this post on your snazzy and shiny new smartphone or iPad). Finally, I will have caused blisters to appear in between my toes; a consequence of chafing.

You might be thinking that I have become a modern disciple of the Marquis de Sade in relation to my body. You would be wrong, though

Reader, I’m a runner.

For about twenty years now I have been an active jogger. Track or pavement, you name it, I have pounded on it. I still remember my regular runs at Havana University Stadium in the mid-90s when I was still a student at uni. But then my professional life began and I had to adapt my running hours to my new work schedule.

Relocated to the UK in ’97, I didn’t run for the first year or so. I was still getting used to my surroundings. Then, one day, on a warm, summer Sunday morning, I told my wife I would go out for a short run. Despite my fitness, I could feel my muscles aching. I could only manage a couple of laps around our local park. In spite of the physical discomfort, however, I realised that I was still in love with jogging. I vowed to go back to it in earnest and have kept my promise since.

A recent article posed the questions: Why? Why do we run? Mine was one of the 688 replies the feature got: why shouldn’t I?  I agreed with the author of the column, Adharanand Finn that “Running brings us joy. Watch small children when they are excited, at play, and mostly they can't stop running. Back and forth, up and down, in little, pointless circles.” Moreover, running is liberating. Yes, there’s the ache (not pain, if you feel pain, stop doing it and check with your GP), the wear and tear to which you submit your knees over time and the aforementioned bodily fluid coming out of your nose. But there’s also a sense of letting go and leaving your troubles behind.

In my case there’s another reason to go out for a jog on a cold, winter’s day with the temperature hovering just over the 0° mark. It’s hard to explain, though, because my motivation is not based on one single element, but rather, on a symbiosis of different factors: I run outdoors on my own whilst listening to music.

The outdoors aspect gives me a scenery, albeit of an urban ilk, that changes constantly. Even when I’m constantly jogging along the same roads and taking the same route. My loneliness is the catalyst for inspiration (whether it results in a post on my blog or an article for publication in a newspaper or magazine). The music is one of the more important elements. A lot of the melodies I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate in recent years have been listened to whilst I’ve been pounding the streets and pavements of my barrio.

Over the years my running routine has changed. Back in Cuba I used to run in the mornings. That changed drastically when I started to work as a teacher and began my semi-professional dancing career with the Havana University Folkloric Ensemble. I could only jog whenever the opportunity arose. Settled in the UK and my love for running rekindled, I used to set out in the mornings again. For the last decade, however, I have opted for sunsets instead of sunrises as companions to my regular run. Nevertheless, a few years ago, on a warm summer Sunday morning, I went out for a jog. It was still very early and the sun was not out yet. As I went up a steep hill, Bach’s Prelude in C major (performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma) kicked in on my mp3 player. As if on cue, the sun began to rise behind me. It was pure magic. Had I been looking for a branch of philosophy that could explain why I was running up that hill, that wordless moment would have summed up it for me perfectly: the beautiful innateness of jogging.

© 2013

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 27th February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About Formality and Informality)

One of my favourite poems by the late Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti is Sery Estar. Although heavily political the piece also has a nice combination of humour and didacticism. The latter is illustrated by the author’s poetic explanation of the difference between the verbs ser and estar (hence the title) in Spanish to an imaginary US marine. This is always confusing for people learning Spanish. In English, there’s only to be. Or not, as Shakespeare put it. In French, there’s être and in German there’s sein. But in Spanish we have two verbs, one of which denotes identity (ser) and another one that infers condition (estar). Confusing, uh? You bet.

Yet, Anglo speakers can occasionally indulge in the pleasure of hanging a sign outside their houses that reads “Schadenfreude” (or epicaricacy, in English) and watch us, speakers of other languages, struggling to come to terms with modern linguistic currents. For instance, when to be formal and when to be informal.

Spanish has a common trait with French and German, the other two languages I speak (although not as fluently as I used to). They all have formal ways of addressing someone according to age or social status. For instance, if I were in Spain or any other country from the Diaspora, it would never occur to me to use the “” with a new acquaintance unless he or she was my age or younger. Anyone over fifty would be given the “usted” treatment straight away. Same with French and “vous” and the German “Sie”. Besides, in the case of German, one of the reasons why I usually stay with the formal is that it makes it easier for me to conjugate verbs. They usually keep the infinitive form – with the exception of “sein”, methinks. Even when my interlocutor assures me that "Wir sagen doch du, ja?", I still sometimes use the "Sie". Which is just as rude as "Du-ing" someone without his or her consent.

I can hear Anglophones laughing their heads off now. But we only have “you” for both singular and plural, they’re probably shouting out. And they’re right. What makes matters more confusing is that nowadays the distinction between “tú/usted”, “tu/vous” and “du/Sie” is fading away rapidly. Part of it is technology. There are five letters in “usted” and 140 characters to contend with in Twitter. Guess which of the two addresses is handier? Well done for figuring that one out. Another reason for this linguistic shift might be the drive to turn less dynamic languages (Spanish and French come to mind) into lexica more attuned to the times we’re living, like English has done for the past few decades. Readers of this blog know that I’ve neither time nor patience, for the Real Academia Española, the body tasked with looking after the correct use of our grammar and syntax. The overhaul of the “tú/usted” division might be a way of reacting against centuries-old, traditional dogma which made even relatives observe formality when addressing each other. In fact, I know that in some countries in South America (Ecuador and Peru, for instance) children still address their parents as “usted”.

There is a third reason why the confusion about when “se tutoyer” and when “se vouvoyer”, or when to “du” or “Sie” someone, has come to the surface in recent years. There are countries, mainly in Europe, that are still resistant to the Americanisation of their culture. They see US influence as detrimental to their heritage. I’ve no truck with this attitude, but it was interesting to see a few years ago the short shrift the British ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair was given when he was presumably addressed as “Yo, Blair!” by ex-White House dweller, George W. Bush. Never mind the lack of a formal second person singular in English, this chumminess was a step too far. Especially on the back of the ill-fated invasion of Iraq a few years before and the too-close-for-comfort relationship between Downing Street and Washington during that period. In these circumstances, maybe keeping our “tú/usted”, “tu/vous” and “du/Sie” dichotomy is a sign of showing respect to people we meet for the first time. It also creates a space between individuals to get to know each other progressively. In the same way I wouldn’t dream of calling my former line-manager (a headteacher) “mate” in public, I wouldn’t “du” anyone just because it’s cool to do so. Surely a question for the marine boy of Benedetti’s poem to ask the Uruguayan master. After all, the poet uses “” al the way through.

© 2013

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: “Coffee, Music and Reflections”, to be published on Sunday 24th February at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Just when I thought I’d sussed out the whole parenting malarkey with my fifteen-year-old son, up pops the question of what to do about my eleven-year-old (almost twelve, as she never ceases to remind me) daughter.

Of course I’m joking about having come to the end of my (unofficial) degree in parenting. Especially with a teenager in the house. As any mum or dad out there knows, one of the unmentioned duties and responsibilities included in parents’ job specification is not to feel that you’ve arrived at the “Finish” line. Milestones along the way? No problem. Just don’t feel too smug or complacent about them. I’m none the wiser when it comes to raising children, even if I’m older. I get the hang of it one minute, and then the next one I have to learn new tricks because the knowledge I acquired a week ago is almost obsolete seven days after.

However, there was always an attitude I adopted the minute I became a parent and that was to treat my son and daughter the same way regardless of their age gap – three years, since you ask. Or attempt to. Believe you me, old habits die hard and the macho environment in which I grew up in Cuba sneaks back in occasionally.

This scenario played in my head recently as I read a very good review of Steve Biddulph’s new book, Raising Girls: Helping Your Daughter to Grow Up Wise, Warm and Strong. I am acquainted with Steve’s oeuvre. His was one of the volumes I read when preparing myself to become a father for the first time. Raising Boys became an invaluable companion for me alongside Fatherhood Reclaimed by Adrienne Burgess. Obviously, reading a book when embarking on a career as a parent is a wonderful idea. Just remember that you will need a book per child. That was the first lesson I learnt with both Raising... and Fatherhood... Children are individuals, even when they have a sibling, or more than one. The other lesson I was taught was that boys were complicated and maybe that’s why I’m freaking out slightly now that my daughter is growing up and showing similar signs to the ones my son showed at the same age.

Steve’s book about boys focused mainly on whether it was better for them to start school at a later age than girls and on the need to have male role models when growing up. He also addressed the absentee father or male carer who sacrificed his family life (especially if there are boys in it) for the sake of a career. His was a call to arms to stop somehow the rot that lack of a paternal figure could sometimes cause.

But now he comes back with a new title and it is girls that are his target. I confess that I haven’t read Raising Girls yet but it won’t be long before I head for a secondhand bookshop (I usually wait until the initial buzz dies down a bit) or to purchase a copy.

Biological determinism has a lot to answer for the ways in which we think about (and misjudge) girls. And again I put myself in front of the firing squad. Although I’ve always thought of my daughter as an equal, occasionally I act in a manner that undermines her independence. This is usually brought about by the way society dictates how girls and boys ought to behave and what they should like. Blue for boys and pink for girls (although it wasn’t ever thus, in fact for many years it was the other way around), dolls for girls and cars or guns for boys. Boys ride on bikes and climb trees. Girls stay home and play with the tea set. That was how I was raised but not how my wife and I have brought up our children.

Parallel to these attitudes there’s a new fear that female adolescents and young women are more prone to being found in the nearest A&E ward on a Saturday night than at home revising for their GCSEs or A-levels. Hardly a day goes by without the tabloids bringing us tales of female debauchery, drunkenness and loutish behaviour on the streets of Britain. That’s just one side of the story, however. The other side presents preteen and teenage girls as gullible victims of marketing predators who make them feel anxious and unsure about themselves.

Victims or perpetrators? When it comes to girls and teenagers, the jury’s still out. Part of it, I’ve realised over the years, is because we look at women still through the eyes of a male-dominated society. We tell them to look after their drink in a bar in case someone (a bloke, obviously) spikes it and takes advantage of them. We tell women not to walk along a dark road at night because she might be assaulted. How about telling men not to rape? This is what I think the problem is. The world in the last twenty years has developed incredibly and is moving at a very fast pace. But we still haven’t changed our mindset in relation to the (wrongly labelled) “weaker sex”. Whereas in days gone by a young woman throwing up in the gutter would be seen only by her companions and a few passers-by, nowadays, within seconds of being sick on the pavement, her photo will have made it to Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and Blogger. It’s not that teenage girls are drinking more; it’s that the image of them drinking alcohol has a wider and more immediate reach.

That’s not to say that advertising is a benign and passive force that has no influence whatsoever on an eleven- or twelve-year-old. Of course it does. But that’s where our role as parents comes in. My daughter has gadgets like everyone else, but they’re time-limited. Her mobile has to go in a special basket somewhere in the house before she goes to bed and at the moment her internet use is heavily monitored.

In relation to the supposed increased debauchery amongst teenage girls and young women, I can’t help suspecting a bit of the old misogyny creeping in. Women having fun, in control of their lives and deciding who to go to bed with? Ah, they’re just a bunch of slags! How about boys having multiple partners and playing the Lothario card? Ah, that’s all right then. Same old, same old.

As I mentioned at the beginning I’m none the wiser despite having embarked on this (still unofficial) parenting degree, that the University of Life very kindly put on my path, more than fifteen years ago. All I can say is that when it comes to raising my daughter, if she is having fun and it is all safe and legal, let her have it. At the end of the day, girls just wanna have fun.

© 2013

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 20th February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

There’s a passage in Hisham Matar’s novel In the Country of Men which has stayed with me since I first read the book five or six years ago. In it the protagonist, nine-year-old Suleiman, goes to visit a relative of his and sits on a couch in the lounge. On sitting down he makes a funny noise which sounds more like a fart than anything else. He immediately rearranges himself on the sofa in a way that causes him to make the same noise again, thus stopping his relative from thinking that he’s let one drop.

The scene is very short, just a couple of lines long. It is completely irrelevant to the novel’s plot and yet, in its mundaneness I found magic.

When I read fiction, I seek entertainment but also affinity. I take the place of the main character or characters and buy into their life story. I immerse myself in their surroundings and partake of their conflicts. Along the way I enjoy the author’s prose, his or her use of metaphors and similes and the occasional or regular dollop of experimentation. But from time to time, I do also get carried away by a phenomenon I’ve come to label the “wonderful moments of real-life quotidianness”. These are sentences or phrases that strike me for their prosaicness and make me look up from the page. In the example quoted above, when I read the book, I remember thinking at the time that I’d done the same thing Suleiman had done on a few occasions before. In fact, my son did it a couple of weeks ago when we were watching a movie. He came into the lounge, sat down and made a funny noise. Straight away he shot up and said: “That wasn’t what you think it was, it was the sofa.” As if to convince us he sat back down and made the same noise and we all laughed about it.

I, too, laughed when I read the passage with nine-year-old Suleiman. In a novel about the Qaddafi regime and the brutality of it, you need these light-hearted moments. I don’t think Hisham Matar included that scene with a specific purpose in mind. That scene just happened. In the same way characters breathe, but we don’t notice their inhalation/exhalation processes until one of them “sighs with disappointment”. These mundane moments don’t exist for a particular reason. I even doubt they’re thought through properly. And yet, I notice them for their clarity, ubiquity and, above all, for a reality that mirrors mine. We’re so used to well-crafted and nuanced sentences and paragraphs. We can only hazard a guess at the lengths the writer has gone to in order to produce a fine specimen for us readers to devour. However, a novel or short story is also full of unguarded, non-transcendental moments.

For example, in Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, the main character, Alex-Li Tandem travels to New York from London looking for the autograph of erstwhile film star Kitty Alexander. In one passage in the novel Alex is about to cross a busy road in the Big Apple when he is pulled back before stepping off the kerb. The problem? He has looked right instead of looking left. Again, this moment has no significance within the book’s grand narratives: both the search for a father-like figure to fill up the gap left behind by Alex’s dad’s death and the nature of celebrity. Nevertheless, I remember this scene because the same (although the other way around) happened to me when I moved to the Big Smoke from Havana. Even if no one pulled me off the road at the last minute, I do recall feeling confused as to which way to look when crossing a street.

Well-written books trigger off chemical reactions in us through a mix of tropes and reality. Whilst he former continues to be the reason why I read fiction, it is the latter that occasionally gives me a satisfaction that no metaphor, no matter how well-placed, can beat. Even if this “wonderful moment of real-life quotidianness” arrives wrapped up in the sound of what could be (but isn’t) a fart.

© 2013

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 17th February at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Exercises on Free Writing


-          :-D
-          :-(
-          :-)?
-          :-( *&%>^$£”!^&%~@#!!!!
-          :-{?!
-          :-( *^$£”!%^&~@#!!!
-          :-0?
-          :-( *^”!%^&~@#!!
-          :-0???
-          :-( *&%>^$£”!
-          :-)?
-          :-)
-          :-) :-)!!!!

© 2012
Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 13th
February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

your gandolf-like beard preceded you every time you marched down obispo boulevard grey facial follicles that acted like a weather rooster to us habaneros a way a peculiar unique way to measure the force of the wind you used to carry your few belongings in a black bag and a bundle of papers in a folder wrapped around you like a crusader your black cape defied the seething cuban summer and like a modern quixote you fended off passers-by’s puzzled looks with your long dirty gnarled fingernails which like twisted spears seemed to battle imaginary giants every time you moved them in your never-ending soliloquies to you all areas including green areas were go areas there were no no trespassing or keep off the grass signs you didn’t tread from the plaza de armas in old havana to the 21st street park in el vedado you sat on the dry lawn leafing through the pages of your notebooks and papers you carried maybe looking for your real identity wondering how you’d got there why we called you what we called you we called you el caballero de paris following blindly local lore thinking that in a distant past too distant for us to even contemplate you had been a gentleman monsieur so and so recently arrived from la ville-lumière a man well-versed in the belles lettres and yet and yet and yet you weren’t french but spanish as i found out long after you were dead because you died before i could apologise to you apologise for recoiling with fear every time i saw you walking towards us my mother and me on obispo boulevard of course you weren’t walking towards us i doubt you even acknowledged our presence and yet i cowered like a seven or eight year old cowers in the dark

getting smaller

and smaller

and smaller

until all i saw was your gandalf-like beard looming imposingly over me

but find out i did you were originally from galicia celtic descendant through your veins ran the blood of the citizens of the city of lugo named after the god of light oaths and arts i imagine that one day you looked west and set out looking for fame and fortune and ended up unintentionally as the chorus of a rumba sung in the slums and streets of havana and  played on wooden boxes and conga drums mira quien viene por ahi el caballero de pari’ look who’s coming here the caballero de paris is already here born at the end of a century and almost the beginning of a new one you were our harmless intellectual vagabond our urban wizard without a wand but with a black bag full of your belonging and a bundle of papers in a folder

© 2013

Next Post: “Exercises on Free Writing”, to be published on Sunday 10th February at 10am (GMT)

 Photo taken from Cubanos por el Mundo

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

What did you have for dinner last night? Sorry, I don’t mean to pry but I was just wondering if, perhaps, you had one of those succulent breaded chicken goujons that are on sale at my local Tesco’s. Or maybe you had a Chinese takeaway, or was it an Indian instead? And did you stop to think, whilst gobbling down that greasy chicken thigh, that the amount of rained-on “Missing” posters with photos of happy-looking pets has increased lately in your neck of the woods? In fact, where’s Tabby these days? And Spotty? Have you ever wondered what’s really inside our dinner?

What was surprising about the recent food scare in the UK was that people were surprised to find out there were traces of horsemeat DNA in beef burgers. To be honest I was expecting the amount of alien substances to be similar to that commonly found in a witch’s list for a magical potion.

In the movie The Truman Show, Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, an ordinary and unassuming insurance salesman leading what seems to be a perfect life. What is less obvious to Burbank/Carrey is that since his birth he has been the main focus of the most popular reality show in television history.

We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented, intones solemnly the show’s director Christof (played with great panache by Ed Harris) at some point in the film. That is, in my opinion, what happened with Equusgate.

Please, refrain from making jokes, they're completely un-neigh-cessary
We live in an era where for more than a decade marketing has trumped veracity and reality has had a makeover, especially of the reality show format. It’s not just on telly where we find this situation, but also in everyday life. Like the food we consume.

One of the reasons why the horsemeat DNA that was found in burgers recently caused such a brouhaha was because occasionally this faux-reality is punctured by actual crises. Then we’re brought back down to Earth. Our food is not what is meant to be. In the case of Equusgate, it was the lower range of the shelf that was mainly affected. These are the cheaper products, often bought by those without the means to opt for something healthier and safer. Hence the checks and regulations most comestibles have to abide by are easier to duck. So, we have a problem of class and modernity. Class because once again it’s the poor bearing the brunt of a crisis. And modernity because one of the prices we’ve paid for our economic and social development is a divorce between man (generically speaking) and nature.

The processes of food preparation and consumption are so far apart these days that it very often feels as if we’d signed an agreement many years ago that read: “Ask no questions, be told no lies. Just swallow”. Except that the reality of the world with which we are presented is sometimes so hard to believe that even the powerful forces of marketing have to backtrack and issue rushed mea culpas.

As a meat-eater myself, I know I’m part of the problem. Instead of paying attention to the way animals are reared and kept, I turn a blind eyet. The steak I had a couple of weeks back at our local probably had a happy life before ending up on my plate. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe it lived in cramped conditions and suffered a horrible death. I don’t know and to be honest with you, my fellow blogger, I didn’t ask the pub landlord any questions about the provenance of the (dead) animal in front of me. Chomp, chomp, chomp, that’s all I did. I’m part of the problem. I should enquire why bananas seem to keep their beautiful yellow colour after more than five days, when in reality they usually go dark after a 48 hours. Or when I buy those cartons that read “juice drink”, what’s really in them? I should be asking those questions, but I’m not. Because many years ago I signed the agreement that tacitly states that “hereby you accept the reality with which you are presented”.

At the end of the movie The Truman Show, Jim Carrey exits the set after realising that his life is nothing but a television programme. Christof desperately attempts to change his mind. And guess what? When Carrey finally signs off he is cheered by the same audience that had followed his every move since the day he’d been born. Could the same happen to the food we eat? Will we have a happy ending? What do you think?

© 2012

Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 6th February at 11:59pm (GMT)


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