Missing my road trips

Spain was a taut, dry drum-head
Daily beating a dull thud
Flatlands and eagle’s nest
Silence lashed by the storm.
How much, to the point of weeping, in my soul
I love your hard soil, your poor bread,
Your poor people, how much in the deep place
Of my being there is still the lost flower
Of your wrinkled villages, motionless in time
And your metallic meadows
Stretched out in the moonlight through the ages,
Now devoured by a false god.

All your confinement, your animal isolation
While you are still conscious
Surrounded by the abstract stones of silence,
Your rough wine, your smooth wine
Your violent and dangerous vineyards.

Solar stone, pure among the regions
Of the world, Spain streaked
With blood and metal, blue and victorious
Proletarian Spain, made of petals and bullets
Unique, alive, asleep – resounding.

What Spain Was Like, Pablo Neruda

Let deeds match words

Between April 4 and 9 1994, we decided to make a Spanish road movie traveling from Porto to Cordoba via Cáceres, Trujillo and Mérida and getting lost in Alentejo on the way back. This was a dream road trip, just for the sake of driving and getting away. I still keep the photo diary of this trip and still remember P’s army green bomber jacket, everyone’s Timberland boots and my outrageous yellow pants printed with purple grapes that I had bought in Guiné Bissau two years before, and the silly photo shoots wearing a blue African hat my mother got in Senegal. I still have the pants I don’t know what happened to the hat.

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Armed with a yellow Let’s Go Budget Guide to Spain, we had nothing pre-booked and just chose where to stay by opening the book to whichever city we were in. This lack of strategy didn’t work in Mérida. All the recommended places were fully booked. Someone told us we should look for Pepita who rented rooms to tourists before this was an organized activity. We found her place after J walked all over shouting her name. I remember Pepita as a black haired larger than life fortune teller. She kept us awake for hours after dinner, the four of us sitting around a skirted table trying to be polite while at least one of us was feeling uncomfortably scared. Nothing happened, of course. Maybe some people rent rooms in their homes because they need some company.

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At the time I didn’t like the city. I still thought I would come back for the classical theater festival because you can not enter that Roman theater lightheartedly. Unless, like J, you start resenting your friends for forcing you to visit a “bunch of rocks”. This year I came back. After seeing a Facebook’s friend selfie waiting for Seneca. I returned to Mérida with someone who’s “against Romans”, whatever this might mean. I did not bother asking.

I went to the theater on my own. I’m a firm believer that everything grand or small you really wish to do, should be done in solitude. This might seem stupid but it has worked for me so far.

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I did not, as planned, manage to see a Tragedy. The importance of this was also explained during the Prologue to La comedia de las mentiras when Calidorus ( in this adaptation, the Slave) makes it clear that we are in fact going to see a Comedy and even though he would have very much preferred to have been a “tragic actress” this was not his role for the evening. Pepe Anton Gómez and Sergi Pompermeyer decided to do some kind of “mash-up” of Plautus‘ plays because even though Pseudolus was the first one on their minds, also Miles Gloriosus or Mercator, seemed suitable and the obvious solution was to take the way of the original author and base their own work on a series of previous works. Much in the same way Plautus inspired Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors .

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I arrived early so I could focus on being there. Observing people come in and find their seats, and greet their friends, and obliging couples who’d ask me to take their photo against the amazing backdrop of the theater. Situations like these always take me back to my English finals. The text was about photography reducing whatever was important in the world to your own existence. Now, these amazing places seem to be reduced to photo sets. The family of four seating next to me has their photo taken as well. It takes the mother a few minutes to analyze her own expression with care before sending the photo to a WhatsApp group named “Forever Young”. Yes, I know, I’m a horrible snoop. The actions of others, and their conversations have always been a source of never-ending fascination. The theater is filling up and there’s a beautiful massive choreography of abanicos trying to keep flawless made-up faces looking fresh.

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I spent the next two hours in absolute concentration for fear that my knowledge of Spanish might not be enough to follow a comedy. I somehow have the idea that tragic emotions would not be as language bound. I think I manage to pick up most of it. The Exode sings the virtues of lying so that life actually keeps moving in a quasi-Broadway musical act. I walk alone back to the hotel. I had not managed to keep the plan of seeing a Greek Tragedy in Mérida but in some way I still kept a promise made to myself. I’m almost certain I don’t do this as often as I should.

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The first time I went to Mérida I was still sort of madly in love with the owner of the green army bomber jacket and ironic smirk. These days, the love of theater tends to move me more than anything else. Also Extremadura has a way of connecting all the dots. It reminds me of childhood cartoons and of the freedom of life on the road and the possibility of accidentally getting lost. This time around, I truly enjoyed being in Mérida, I might not have traveled alone but still felt that this trip was only mine.

In case you’re interested

The Mérida International Classical Theatre Festival is the oldest of its kind in Spain and takes place every year between July and August

This time I used booking.com and stayed at Deluxe Hostel & Suites. The building was originally used as accommodation for railway workers in the 50s and is now equipped with a delightful salt water pool with massage beds. The best thing about it it’s the incredibly nice, helpful and truly amazing staff.

I was only in Mérida for three days and did not get to visit the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano or the El Costurero. I did visit the Conjunto Monumental, tickets are €15 and you can use them at your own pace to visit the Teatro y Anfiteatro romanos, the Alcazaba árabe, the Casa romana del Mitreo, the Cripta de la basílica de Santa Eulalia , the Área Arqueológica de Morería, the Circo romano and Área funeraria de Los Columbarios.

I only have two meals a day, breakfast and either lunch or dinner (plenty of snacks and coffee in between) so I have only been to three restaurants:

  • Pepe Ossorio (Plaza Constitución, 10) Nice upscale restaurant, Mediterranean/ fusion cuisine. Not my favourite kind of place but the food and the service was nice.
  • La Tapilla Sixtina (Calle Hernán Cortés, 39) Friendly tapas bar, huge portions, the food was quite good and the staff was great.

  • Sapori d’Italia (Calle del Museo, 21) Italian restaurant owned by an expat from Naples. Nice enough.

One day I’ll be able to travel and do no shopping. This wasn’t that kind of trip.

Martín. La Libreria de Papel (Calle Sta. Eulalia, 46) Very helpful staff and although I’m not a big fan, the selection of graphic novels seemed pretty impressive. I bought Mario Vargas Llosa’s Elogio de la educación and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditaciones. 

Arena 77 (Calle Sagasta, 23) I walked past when it was closed an there they were, the grafia sandals that looked just like the Stephan Kélian ones I used to have, probably around the end of the 90s), and which did not survive through the 00s. I came back to get them and was lucky to meet Carmen, an artist who works in restoration, has lived in La Habana and Sevilla where she owned a restaurant, in Lisbon where she was working in the México pavilion for Expo’98 and who now owns this store selling handmade pieces of beauty from Marrakesh and Colombia and Africa via Cádiz. Everything is made my women and everything is brought to Spain with no intermediaries. I bought a beaded bracelet made in Colombia, a bag lined in a beautiful wax print african fabric as a gift for my mother, and the Marrakesh raffia sandals just because they are like recovering a piece of the past.

Martina Boutiq (Calle José Ramon Mélida, 4) Stocks Antica Sartoria and was having a sale which served as the perfect excuse to buy an embelished white lace bomber jacket which is, obviously,  a “foundation” garment. The ladies working here are are just lovely.

Along Calle José Ramon Mélida there are several archeological reproductions and souvenir shops and I could not resist the most typical of the abanicos. What can I say, I’m truly kitsch at heart.

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Horror Vacui

The fear of the empty space, most times understood as “ridiculous to the excess”.

Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels. Francisco Goya


Historically understood as an expression of Catholic Anti-Reformation propaganda, Baroque art is normally understood as lacking the reason and discipline associated with neoclassicism and the sophistication of more refined  mannerism styles. In the 17th century, Baroque emerges in Europe as an extravagant, impetuous reaction against religious wars, the Reformation and the Counter Reformation, The 30 Years War, economic crisis and other ills and plagues form its historical backdrop. Going beyond the balanced and orderly representation of the world, it is an aesthetic of distortion, deception, complexity, and over-elaboration:  the novel inside the novel (Don Quijote [1605 and 1615]), theater inside the theater (Hamlet [c1601]), the painting inside the painting (Velázquez’s Las Meninas [1656] ), mirrors inside mirrors, etc. An emotional response to emptiness and disenchantement.

Leonardo da Vinci’s simplicity as the ultimate sophistication has become the norm in a society overwhelmed my the amount of visual information and material possessions that seem to clutter our minds and dominate our living spaces The claustrophobic in me has tried often times to convert to the minimalist / sophisticated imperative with no success. The maximalist in me can’t resist the emotional drama, radical spirit and aesthetic vertigo of the horror vacui.

Photos (mine) San Nicolás Church in Valencia, Spain,  A Gothic structure invaded by Baroque extravaganza.

 

 

References

Radical

Shrunken treasures

I spent most of the last month of June traveling and had the privilege of spending a few days in Valencia and of visiting the fabulous L’Iber, Museo de los soldaditos de plomo (Museum of Toy Soldiers). Housed in the magnificent, gothic style Palace of Malferit, once the residence of Don Juan Brizuela y Artés de Albanell, master of Alcolecha, and becoming, from 1690, the residence of the Marquis of Malferit, whose third holder, Salvador Roca y Pertusa Malferit, was made one of the “Grandees of Spain” by Carlos IV in 1803, L’Iber, holding 95.000 pieces and counting,  is much more than the largest toy soldier museum in the world. As it often happens with places and spaces that make you believe that magic is real, L’Iber is the dream turned into reality of Álvaro Noguera Giménez, one of the founders of the Spanish newspaper El País, whose passion for shrunken treasures and private collection of miniatures made the museum a reality.

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I had, unfortunately, a very limited time to visit L’Iber but was lucky enough to have someone call my attention to the “Fashion History” corner from which I had to be dragged from. My photos do not make any justice either to the museum collection or to the precious work of the Pixi atelier.

Poiret 1911

Created by Alexis Poliakoff , son of the painter Serge Poliakoff, second assistant to Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard, painter, sculptor and master of a magic world of miniatures and lead figurines, Pixi was, from the beginning a revolutionary in the world of toy soldiers and lead figures dominated by army and war themes. Miniature soldier figurines found in Egyptian tombs have been dated to 2500 BC and were created for ritual purposes and not as playthings. Similarly, across Medieval Europe, generals and monarchs had miniature armies crafted for them in silver, porcelain, or wood for use during war-strategy sessions and only in the 18th century started being used as toys for the children of the affluent European aristocracy, evolving as toys throughout the 19th and 20th century and as objects of passion and fervent collections.

Rochas, 1934

From African Art to iconic cartoon and graphic novels characters and never forgetting the apparent triviality of our everyday life, Pixi has miniaturized everything and it’s Arts of Fashion: Haute Couture collection, that has me bound to the promise of going back to Valencia just to spend time at L’Iber, is truly a wonderful army of “fashion toy soldiers”.

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Dior 1948
Jacques Fath 1949
Jacques Fath 1949
Nina Ricci 1959
Nina Ricci 1959
Courrèges 1965
Courrèges 1965
Issey Miyake 1977
Issey Miyake 1977
Yves Saint-Laurent d'après Picasso 1979
Yves Saint-Laurent d’après Picasso 1979
Paco Rabanne 1983
Paco Rabanne 1983
Popy Moreni Universo 1984
Popy Moreni Universo 1984
J.P.Gaultier robe gaine 1985
J.P.Gaultier robe gaine 1985
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Emanuel Ungaro robe du soir 1987
J.C de Castelbajac robe Zèbre 1987
J.C de Castelbajac robe Zèbre 1987
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C.Lacroix Cigale A/H 1987-1988
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Karl Lagerfeld 1988 Fragonard
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Poiret Le choix difficile

Even though it has been coined to depict an economics concept, the phrase “small is beautiful” seems, in the words of John Mack, to be true. “Small is, indeed, very often, and by common consent, beautiful”. All miniatures result from technology and they achieve their “effect via the enchantment cast by [their] technical means, the manner of [their] coming into being, or rather, the idea one forms of [their] coming into being”.

All miniatures seem to have intrinsic aesthetic quality — and from what should they draw this constant virtue if not from the dimensions themselves?

Claude Lévi-Strauss

The “diminutive tactility” of miniatures and their magnetic powers of fascination, allow us, even if we are not the intended audience or actor of a certain reality, to form our own constructions of reality. For Lévi-Strauss, “all works of art partake of the nature of miniatures or scale models (…) a work of art is a universe in miniature” one that lets us experience  “a world in a grain of sand“.

 

 

 

 

 

All photos mine, captions from the Pixi online catalogue

Miniature