To boldly go where too few have gone before
When we went to Germany and Russia four years ago, my wife took on the task (which she says she loved) of reading War and Peace. She said it was a joy of a story and didn’t seem to mind having to refer to a genealogical chart whenever she wasn’t sure which cousin was being betrayed on page 732.
After reading through some of Rick Steves’ guide to Spain before and during my just completed trip to the Iberian Peninsula (including Barcelona, Toledo, Madrid, Cordoba, Granada, Seville, Tomar, Sintra and last but definitely nowhere near least: Lisbon) I decided before leaving on my Sabbatical that I would work my way through Don Quixote.
I don’t normally love reading off a Kindle or iPad but when it comes to traveling and lugging 400+ page books I make exceptions. I read slowly, usually before bed. Recovering from a red eye from Lisbon to Tel Aviv today, I finally finished the book.
For those who haven’t read it and intend to beware: there are spoilers in this note. On the other hand, is there anyone who doesn’t go to see Romeo and Juliet because they know how it’s going to turn out?
As I began reading it, I noted the subtext of humor and self-consciousness of Cervantes. His main point seems to be a highly critical reading of the Knight-errant institution. All of the Quixote’s friends and relatives see his commitment to the role as that of a madman. Even Sancho who latches on for the promise of a governorship seems to understand the madness of his master and is always a mañana away from quitting the enterprise completely, returning to his wife and children and more pedestrian work-a-day life.
It was impossible to experience the book without both putting it in context of what I had been learning historically from Dr. Stephen Berke on our mission as well as what meagre literary experience I have managed to garner in about 1/2 a century of idiosyncratic reading.
Dr. Berke spoke of Christian Spain’s best century as being the gold and silver infused 16th century following Columbus’ opening of what would become known as the Americas to Europe. Spain was the first investor and beneficiary of the largess that flowed from those acts of brutality and conquest and most say it lost that power primarily by overextending its reach militarily, politically and religiously. Even during the century of expansion and wealth, Spain had to declare bankruptcy more than once.
Cervantes is writing Don Quixote at the very end of the 16th century, just as Spain will begin it’s slide into a second tier European power behind the Netherlands and Britain among many others. It seems likely that although he is explicitly critical of the Knight-errant institution, as all novelists do, he is also likely referring to Spain’s hubris and misplaced religious and military idealism of his own time.
Having spent two weeks reviewing Jewish history in the Iberian peninsula, including some of the worst moments of our history prior to the Holocaust, I was over half way through before I noted one off-hand remark of anti-Semitism, Sancho Panza listing his positive attributes which include the fact that he hates the Jews, of course.
More expansive, perhaps because the issue was more relevant to his time, was the narrative of a Morisco, a Moslem whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity, who sneaks back into Spain at the risk of his life. Unlike the New Christian ‘Jews’ (Conversos) who were hounded by the Inquisition, the Spaniards expelled the New Christian ‘Moslems’ en masse in 1609. Cervantes wrote the first half of Don Quixote in 1605 and the second half just before he died in 1615; clearly this was a timely topic as it was part of the second half of the story.
As for literary connections, my first thought was Cervantes as an early Spanish Herman Melville. I kept thinking of all the references to fictional knights, the examples Quixote was trying to recreate in his own adventures, and remembering the encyclopedic and episodic nature of Moby Dick and whale hunting - a very specific and, yes, quixotic adventure of its own.
Even more so, I felt a connection to our own Mark Twain whose sense of humor and critical national self awareness in novels like Huckleberry Finn constantly arose in my consciousness as I conquered yet another disastrous adventure of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The meta-awareness of the novel, where characters refer to the ‘first’ book of the adventures and want to use the Knight as a source of amusement and entertainment shocked me as my only real experience with the narrative had been Man of LaMancha, a far less cynical if beautiful artistic representation of the story.
In case I was ‘off base’ I asked our guide in Spain, Javier -- who is also an expert in art history (which made his description of the Guernica particularly riveting) and who loved reading Amos Oz Tales of Love and Darkness (I knew I liked him...) -- whether Mark Twain was our Cervantes and vice-versa. He liked the comparison.
That people’s misfortunes could be a source of entertainment and joy is something I knew existed before the modern hyper-gong-show era in which a reality-entertainment star is actually running for president of the US but I hadn’t realized it was so well developed in a classic work of fiction from 400 years ago. Schadenfreude abounds in Don Quixote.
Finally, I wondered whether Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. came up with his vision of heaven from Happy Birthday, Wanda June after reading Don Quixote. According to his fictional theology in that work everyone is busy playing Shuffleboard in heaven (and drinking beer). Near the end of Don Quixote (spoiler alert!!!!) an elderly matron acts as though she dies and is resurrected by the mini-tortures of Sancho. When asked what ‘hell’ is like (since those who die of depression, according to Don Quixote, must go to hell and not heaven) she describes people playing tennis.
It may seem obvious by now but in case you didn’t get it, I do recommend Don Quixote. Even if I had read it in high school, I’m not sure I would have really gotten it.
Thanks to Rick Steves, David Gillison of [email protected] (https://www.facebook.com/foodivinet...) and my wife for her incredible computer skills, we had some great food experiences in Spain/Portugal. I don’t usually post food photos, not because I think others shouldn’t but because I don’t think that’s what usually interests people about what I have to share.
From Spain and Portugal I did share a few. I suppose I could have shared more...but here’s an overview.
Our first night in Spain was Barcelona which, as I’m sure many of you know, doesn’t believe it is really Spanish but rather a part of Catalunya (they won’t even use the sedilla on the ‘n’!). After our opening program, I followed Rick Steves’ suggestions to go to a few streets that had good tapas and drinks and we found a terrific one called Gilda’s (no relation to the SNL star that we could tell) and beyond the great tapas we tried, we had a great conversation with the staff behind the bar. We had small servings of fish and cheese and bread as well as a couple of glasses of great Catalonian wine (one white and one red).
Even better, we got a great impression from one of the cooks of how funny the Castilian dialect sounds to Barcelonans. Getting ready to come to Spain, I’ve been practicing saying ‘Barthelona’ assuming that’s how they speak. Most Barcelonans truly do not speak that way. The cook imitated Castilian in a way that made Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye impressions look tame. I know they love Jerry in France -- I wonder whether they love him equally in Catalunya.
Then the owner walked in and asked us how we liked the tapas and drinks. He explained that many of the ingredients he picks idiosyncratically for what he considers quality even though he could get them more cheaply. We didn’t try the beer because it was Belgian and I can get Stella Artois anywhere. He said he also had an ice cream place by the beach and if we told them we had been to Gilda’s we’d get a discount.
In the morning we were greeted with something other than what a ‘continental’ breakfast used to mean. In addition to the healthy meal presented here, far more was available including a great coffee machine which grinds it’s beans fresh for every espresso and cappuccino.
Photo credit: LHM
One of the radio programs that Rick Steves put together that I heard in my car on a Sunday afternoon at least a year ago suggested that sometimes it’s best in Europe to find a market and put together a cheap picnic of cheese, veggies, fruit and bread rather than shelling out for an expensive meal at a white cloth restaurant. At least once, we took his advice and went to the open market off La Rambla for fish, cheese, nuts, and veggies which we ate on the run as we needed to get back to the hotel for a lecture. It didn’t disappoint.
On our way back from visiting the Miro Foundation, an incredible museum which features Miro’s entire career and not just the whimsical period most of us associate with his art, we stopped for a Bocadillo (sandwich) at a small local cafeteria (not self-serve joints as we Americans assume but another word for ‘cafe’) of cheese and tuna. A local whose mother tongue was English helped us out.
Spaniards are not great at English for the most part. This is historically based on an inward orientation as early as 1567 with the Pragmatic edict of Phillip II who controlled a multi-lingual empire but could only speak Spanish. He wanted to force the Moriscos (the Moslem forced converts) to give up Arabic and they were required to learn Spanish and not use any other languages in public within three years. In addition, foreign books were banned as was most foreign education. Spanish kids could learn in Spanish held territories that were approved by the church and state ONLY. During Franco’s reign which ended in 1975 most foreign influences were again suppressed in the interest of a unified Spain. Although many Spaniards today support a more multi-lingual environment, 56% in a recent survey admitted they couldn’t hold a conversation in any language but their own. Spanish movie-goers don’t even get to hear foreign languages in the movies -- most are dubbed in Spanish rather than subtitled.
We had a vegan meal at a place called Flax & Kale which was a great find in a country that values it’s Jamon (ham) very highly. In fact, Madrid has a place called Museo Jamon and I thought it was an actual Ham Museum. Turns out I kept seeing it over and over again from the bus because it was a chain. It may as well have been the McJamon’s of Madrid. No, we didn’t eat there.
photo credit: LHM
In Madrid, we ended up with a group of cantors at a place that David Gillison recommended with one of my colleagues whose Spanish is quite good (she’s from Chile) and David suggested that she bat her eyes a bit for a good deal. It worked almost too well... We tried the Madrid beer Mahou as well as a kind of Spanish Shandy.
Photo credit: LHM
After the dinner I had found one of the best places recommended by Rick Steves for chocolate and churros. For those of you who know my ‘rules’ about dessert only on shabbat, I do bend a bit when traveling as I was pretty sure the Shabbat dinner we were going to share wouldn’t have that on the menu.
Photo Credit: LHM
Photo credit: LHM
In Toledo, I was on my own for lunch as my wife chose to learn more about Madrid and I found a bar/restaurant and decided to try out what Rick Steves had promised in his book -- that if I sat at the bar and ordered a beer I’d be offered free tapas. Well, because I don’t normally like to drink much at lunch (if at all) I ordered a cana of beer (the smallest available) and the waitress gave me potato chips. Not particularly great ones either.
Our last night in Madrid, I joined a group of cantors and friends from the trip for a late night dinner (or what Spaniards call ‘dinner’) and got to see the crowd’s response to the European cup in which Portugal beat France in overtime. It was a loud bar. The beer was good as was the variety of dishes served.
In Granada I finally figured out the ‘formula’ for free tapas. I went for a late night stroll on a street recommended near the hotel and sat myself at a bar and ordered a small beer and a couple tapas (I was hungry and didn’t want to take my chances). I asked the bartender whether there were Andalusian wines he’d recommend and had a glass of tinto (red). With the red he brought out an additional tapa, saying that each glass of wine ‘earns’ a free tapa. Well, since it was evening, I ordered a blanco as well.
slices of fig and date on camembert and jam & cheese and tomato tapas
Red and White Andalusian Wine
I must admit I was a bit tipsy on my way back to the hotel.
The next day when we were able to go on our own for lunch we decided to try out a Teteria, one of the many tea-houses for which Granada in particular is famous.
We ordered tea, of course, Egyptian and Pakistani. This is how it was served:
Egyptian and Pakistani Tea in Granada
Our last night in Seville we made it to another restaurant with great veggie options. This was after a long day of planning for the final post-Flamenco Am Yisraeil Chai concert which I helped put together at a venue with a bull ring! We ended up downing two bottles of wine and sharing a grand variety of great food. Near the restaurant is a giant mushroom sculpture which we went to on our way back. I love a good walk after dinner and so half of us walked back and the rest took a cab back to the hotel.
Metropol Parasol, Seville, Spain. Photo credit: LHM
Portugal was another world in some ways culinarily. Cod, Sardines (almost whale size compared to what we’re used to in America), various liqueurs, a special custard pastry and green wine.
Our first stop was Sintra and we were set off to eat at one of the restaurants in the very hilly town. After a light lunch, primarily vegetarian, I saw a liquor that had been advertised on our flight and asked about it. It was an herby, sweet drink intended for consumption on the rocks -- they offered me a taste. Since it was the middle of the day and now I had to walk down steep, sometimes slippery cobblestone streets I only had a few sips. Beirao.
Our first night in Lisbon, we were tired. My wife found a place just a few blocks away (7 minute walk according to googlemaps) which featured the fish of the country, grilled codfish and was praised on Trip-Advisor quite generously as a good local restaurant. We were first introduced to a kind of wine that is only made in Portugal to my knowledge and I’ve never seen anywhere else, Vinho Verde or Green Wine. It is a wine that is made of green grapes that are less ripe than those used for most white wines and grown in a particular part of northern Portugal. I found out that one cannot get a glass of Green Wine -- only a half carafe or bottle. I found it to be most like what I remember wine coolers to be like but without the addition of unnecessary ingredients. I believe it’s also a little bit less alcoholic than most wines, having a percentage more like beer. Very refreshing after a hot day!
The waiter was very friendly and helped us learn some more Portuguese which, to my untrained ear, sounds like a mixture of Spanish and French with a lot of zh’s and sh’s. When I asked how you say please and he said, ‘Por Favor’ I made the mistake of saying, ‘So, like Spanish!’ They really don’t like that... I blame the wine...
He started to teach us to count to ten in Portuguese when the woman from the table next to us, celebrating her father-in-law’s birthday with a large family contingent, started correcting his Brazilian dialect. We got into a long conversation about soccer (they call it ‘futbol’) and all the teams of Lisbon and how happy they are that they won the championship. The game on the big TV above was what we would probably call ‘exhibition’ games. The season starts again next month. If I understood correctly, they have an 11 month season! Not too shabby.
Her daughters loved listening to me try to pronounce Portuguese; I’m sure the wine helped make it just a little more comedic than it might have been otherwise.
After shabbat we had an opportunity to go out for Ice Cream at what is clearly a popular location called Santini’s. We each wanted to try 3 flavors a piece and the servings were, wisely and thankfully, the size of what one might expect from one American size scoop. We had been introduced to Ginja, a cherry liquor but all the specialty stores that served it were closed (I guess it’s a ‘day’ drink’) so we stopped in a tourist shop and bought a very small bottle which I drank as a dessert treat as I was writing whatever blog was on my mind that night (not this one).
Our final meal in Lisbon was at a Tibetan vegan restaurant which was really quite lovely until we found out they didn’t take VISA and we had to go to an ATM so we could pay for the meal. We had been trying to use up our Euros and had just enough for the taxi, etc. or so we thought.
Well, that’s more than I’ve probably ever written about food (or ever will!).