Saturday, May 24, 2008

Life on the edge (x3)

No, the title of this post has nothing to do with Guanajuato. Or Mexico. Or my travels. It does have to do with my literary travels, however. For those of you who might wonder what I was up to this winter, when this blog was so long dormant, one of the answers (besides mundane stuff like taxes, estate planning, and time at the dentist - there's a hellacious trifecta right there, eh?) is that I was reading. Possibly more than is healthy - it's a bit of an addiction - and I was steaming through close to a book a day for a while there. For those of you interested in the full story, there's a little link to somewhere on this page, clicking on it will take you to a site where all the gory details are listed.

But on the assumption that not everyone cares that much about my reading trajectory, I thought it might nonetheless be interesting to include some of the recent highlights and lowlights on this blog. Which is what this post, and the next, is about.

In this post, I want to mention three books I read in almost consecutive order during last autumn. The connecting theme is that each examines lives lived under extreme circumstances; other than that, the books could hardly be less similar.

The first was Jose Samanago's "Blindness". In brief, I enjoyed it quite a lot, once I got over some initial dislocation with his deceptively simple, fable-like prose style. The recent movie adaptation appears to be getting mixed reviews. Here is a link to my review of the book:

The second was "The Sparrow" by Maria Doria Russell. Rumor has it that a movie of this book, starring Brad Pitt, is in the works.

The third, and by far the most irritating, was Russell Hoban's "Riddley Walker". The charitable judgement might be 'an ambitious failure'; a less charitable assessment would involve the phrase 'pretentious, time-wasting drivel'. I tried to be fair in my review, lord knows I tried:

Of the three, I would give my highest recommendation to "The Sparrow". Highly ambitious, not always successful, but its characters and their situation still remain with me.

That's it from the world of apocalyptic fiction for now. If you were expecting a reader's guide to "The Road", you're on your own. Cormac whatever his name is manages to attain a level of pretentiousness in his style which is incompatible with my reading habits.

Coming soon - 3 classics you might want to (re)consider.


Hard to believe this blog has made it to 300 posts.

What's new? Well, last night I attended a concert by the Orquesta Sinfonica de la Universidad de Guanajuato. This cost all of $7.00 and was a fine experience. (It's possible that my status as a don Quijote student could have gotten me a 50% discount, but I didn't really have the nerve to ask for it). With 'director huesped' Stefano Mazzoleni and guest pianist Dimitri Romano, seven bucks seemed like a bargain already.

Unfortunately, I forgot the universal rule followed by program directors everywhere, namely their obscure compulsion to stick the audience with some vile modern rubbish, presumably in the name of 'progress' or showing how 'avant-garde' they are. Generally, they will front-load the program with this dreck so that there can be no hope of escape. So the smart concert attendance strategy these days is to arrive late and miss the first piece. No such luck last night, however - I arrived on time and was thus subjected to a purgatorial 16 minutes of noise by some 'composer' called Nicola Sani. If I say that, according to the program notes, one of his primary influences was the despicable assmarmot Karlheinz Stockhausen, fraudulent bane of concertgoers the world over, I think you will get the picture.

Fortunately, the remainder of the program was entirely satisfactory, though the closest it got to any of the mainstream romantic repertory was a suite of airs and dances by Respighi. Ol' Dimitri was da bomb on the piano, it has to be said.

And, miracle of miracles, despite it being Friday night here in ol' Guanajuato, I slept like a log in my interior courtyard room, undisturbed by any ambient acoustic pollution.

Today, if I'm up for it, I intend to take the 4-hour walking tour of the city. Possibly including mummies! Watch this space for further developments.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Price update

A highly selective listing of the prices of various goods and services here in Guanajuato: (all prices are based on an assumed exchange rate of 10 pesos to the U.S. dollar)

Cappuccino in a street cafe: $1.60 - $2.10
My lunchtime ham sandwich at the dQ cafe: $1.40
1 hour at the internet cafe: $1.00
1 package of Imodium (12 tablets): $5.90
1 can of Gillette shaving cream: $3.10
1 half-liter bottle of Sprite: 70 cents
1 one and a half liter bottle of soda: $1.40
1 bottle of Corona in a bar: $1.80 - $2.30
1 entree of fajitas de pollo: $7.00
1 entree of chicken Milanese: $7.50
1 cup of cafe americano: $0.80 - $1.20 (avoid - it's barely potable)
2 weeks of laundry, washed and folded: $3.50 (madrileños, take note!)
1 night at the Hotel del Frayle: $55
1 breakfast donut* : $0.60

All of which explains why a 200-peso note starts to feel like a huge bill, embarrassing to ask to have changed.

*: purchased at the local 7-11 (or OXXO) store, and possible culprit in yesterday's episode of gastrointestinal distress)

The Emperor of Scent

One of the unexpected, random pleasures of the internet world we live in is the occasional connections, however tenuous, that are formed. Regular readers of this blog will recall that I have, on occasion, amused myself by mocking the perfume reviews of the New York Times resident perfume critic, Chandler Burr. That is not the full story, however, and it would be reprehensible of me not to set the record straight here. You see, a few months ago I read Burr's book "The Emperor of Scent" (an account of the scientific work of maverick scientist, Luca Turin, on the biochemistry of smell) and was amazed and delighted to find the book an extraordinarily brilliant, awesomely written accomplishment of the highest order. I have written a more complete review of the book over on the goodreads site, here (be sure to read all the way down - the review actually appears in comment #4 on the thread):

Why bring this up now? Well, first of all, it seems inexcusable not to set the record straight. But also - in a message that made my day - yesterday I received an extraordinarily charming e-mail from Chandler himself, thanking me for all my comments on his writing, both negative and positive.

I don't know. It was just really sweet. Now, go out there and buy yourself a copy of "The Emperor of Scent". It could be a handbook for excellent science writing for the non-scientist. As I wrote in my review, it left me slackjawed in admiration.

All of which makes me hope I never hear from this guy

Or this guy

Actually I did receive an e-mail from Seth Godin, in response to my review on Amazon, offering to refund me the cost of the book. Though I suppose it is to his credit, I found it more creepy than anything else.

And if anyone wants to excoriate my own literary efforts, you know where to find it:

Thursday, May 22, 2008

En el hotel

en el hotel 1

en el hotel 2

view from the hotel balcony

An open letter to Montezuma

Dear Monte:

This is just a little note to say "ENOUGH WITH THE REVENGE ALREADY!!" What are you thinking? I really think you must be mixing me up with someone else. Let me just say at the outset that, although I have visited Spain, that's as far as the association goes. A simple fact-checking of history would suggest that, as an Irishman, I have far more in common with the colonized, rather than the colonizers. So, if you could let up already with your fabled revenge, I sure would appreciate it.

And here's a thought on a related, albeit tangential, subject. I know that when the makers of the fine bottled water, "Cryspura", brought in the naming experts to find a suitably evocative name for their product, that they wanted the name to conjure up images of a crystalline source, outstanding in its purity. What they seem to have overlooked, particularly to someone undergoing the wrath of Monte, are the subliminal associations with such other words as "Cryptosporidium" and "spoor". Which is probably not what they had in mind.

Just sayin', that's all. Peace out.

Pride and Prejudice

One of the interesting - and unexpected - aspects of this trip has been how much more friendly people have been once they find out that I am Irish, and not from the U.S. (as they tend to assume at first, reasonably enough, given my clothes). There's a distinct undercurrent of antipathy towards their neighbors to the north, which doesn't take much to surface.

A typical exchange would be the one I had the other day with the ladies in the don Quijote cafe, who make my life-saving one o'clock sandwich every day (without it I would faint dead away by two o'clock). Upon learning that I was from Ireland, several things happened. First, the volume of the ingredients stuffed into the sandwich has doubled ever since. Then, with suitable looking around and lowering of their voices, they proceeded to complain volubly - and at considerable length - about the perceived 'arrogance' of the U.S. students. Note that I say 'perceived arrogance', because - frankly - I think it is largely a matter of prejudice and perception. As far as I can see, the U.S. students are your average bunch - by and large pretty polite, with the occasional glaring exception.

But - further lowering of the voices - true vituperation was reserved for the students from Texas. And, in this regard, I regret to say that the cafeteria ladies were not the only ones to express frank contempt and hostility. I've heard it from sources as diverse as the waiter in the hotel restaurant, from the guy in the internet cafe, from the desk clerk at the hotel. So, I don't know what it is that Texas has done to Guanajuato in the past, but the rancor seems to run fairly deep.

All of which prompts one to an examination of one's own conscience about ugly stereotypes and potential racial prejudices. I'm not sure I should be particularly proud of the result. Because in my case the answer is that I didn't really have very many preconceived notions about Mexico or Mexicans at all before coming here. Which I suppose you could view as an admirable lack of prejudice. But which I think should be more honestly viewed as a kind of breathtaking, slightly colonial, arrogance - I'd just never given much thought to the country or its people, despite living a few hours flight away.

The silver lining? I am actively working on demolishing that wall of ignorance.

En la escuela

This week is pretty quiet at the don Quijote school here in Guanajuato - by my estimation there can't be more than about 40 students, as opposed to the maximum occupancy of about 120, and last week's contingent of maybe 70. The drop in numbers this week is because most of the huge contingent from the University of Alabama at Huntsville finished last Friday. There are a couple of stragglers still completing internships here in the city, but they are few and far between.

As a result, the pace is fairly intensive. In my first two classes of the day (from 9:00 to 10:45 and 11:15 to 13:00) there are just three of us in the class, and in my final conversation class (13:15 to 15:00) I am the only student. So there's no hiding or sleeping in that class. Fortunately, Manuel, the teacher is terrific. Actually, all three teachers are terrific, and it's been a real joy to feel my Spanish, dormant for the winter, come roaring back to life.

OK: "roaring back to life" would be a bit of an exaggeration, but the point is - the geeky fun I get from learning the language endures.

Also, I changed rooms within the hotel last night, and it has made a major difference. I am now ensconced in this enormous suite, the whole general effect is one of royalty down on its luck - the decorating ethos would best be described as 'shabby genteel'. But - blessedly - quietly shabby genteel.

Which is especially important this week. This is the time that the university students finish their exams, and they take to the streets in celebration in large numbers. The local version of what are known in Spain as 'tunas' (wandering student minstrel bands) are called 'callejoneadas' here in Guanajuato (from the word 'callejon', or 'alley') were out in full force last night, so having a room away from the street, overlooking an internal courtyard, was crucial in order to have any hope at all of sleeping.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Soundtrack for a blogger

Earlier today, as I was sitting at the outdoor cafe, swatting away a singularly determined wasp who had his sights on my cappucino, the following sequence was played on the maitre-d's mix tape:

"Faithfully" ---- Journey
"Cool Change" ----- Little River Band
"Total Eclipse of the Heart" ----- Bonnie Tyler (the full version)

It was as if I had never left graduate school. I swear, the sensation of being back in Chapel Hill, studying for comprehensive exams, was visceral, and totally overwhelming.

All of which, for the conspiracy-minded, raises the interesting question (it was a premixed tape, after all) - does someone in that particular cafe have a particularly unusual sense of humor, and a predilection for playing mindgames with tourists of a particular vintage?

And what is it about the songs we heard on the radio at particular times in our lives that makes them stick with us for ever? It's not as if one hears much from or about the Little River Band these days, but there's at least a half-dozen of their songs that have the capacity to transport me back a quarter-century within seconds.

I decided against the madeline for dessert.

¿Where in the world?

Escuela ¿don Quijote? Guanajuato

David's itinerary for the foreseeable future:

mid-May --- June 7th : Guanajuato, Mexico (see photo above)
June 7th --- 12th : San Francisco
June 12th --- 15th : Charlottesville, VA (at a very important wedding)
June 15th --- 18th : Research Triangle, NC (catching up with friends)
June 18th --- 22nd : Ontario, CANADA (visiting family and friends)
June 22nd --- 28th (approx) : San Francisco
June 29th --- September : ¿¿¿¿¿¿ BUENOS AIRES ???????
October --- November : ESPAÑA

details of the Buenos Aires trip still in the works, but now that I am finally on the road again, I am highly motivated to make sure it happens. The home comforts of San Francisco are alluring, but can also be a trap, of sorts, I have decided.

Thanksgiving in Madrid sounds kind of nice, though.

In 2009: ¿Parlez-vous franÇais, anyone?

No joy

No joy at the joyeria

No ferrets at the ferreteria. No joy at the joyeria. Whatever happened to the idea of truth in advertising?

The plain people of Ireland: This is a pretty lame attempt at "humor".
The management: You are right, wretches. Much as it pains me to admit it.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

la primera semana

So, it's more or less exactly a week since I arrived in Guanajuato. Time for the obligatory summing up. "¿Lessons learned?", as they put it so obnoxiously in the corporate world.

Well, yes. One, at least. I'll try to keep things mercifully brief. But it's easy, really. It's this:

Nothing really works 100% here in Guanajuato. Either it takes a while to figure out some kind of work-around, or things just don't quite pan out the way you had hoped or anticipated. But - here's the thing - people (or at least the people I've met) - couldn't be more helpful or charming. They will go out of their way to help you, or to suggest alternatives, and will generally not leave you until they are satisfied you are OK.

Like this evening, after dinner. There I am, trying to finish my little 200-word essay on the major factors that affect a country's economy. By the time I got out of the restaurant, I had the benefit of the advice of the three tables closest to me (and, had I not head for the door, I probably could have gotten advice from the kitchen as well).

So, let me tell you. I'm not a complete fool. I know a good thing when I come across it. So, yes, of course it's unimportant whether things work exactly the way you think they should. That perfect strangers might actually put aside their immediate concerns just to help someone they have never met. That's good times indeed.

The plain people of Ireland: Here, what kind of rubbish is this? These are dime-store platitudes, nothing more!

The management: I knew this continued silence was too much to hope for. Dime-store platitudes they may be. But - tell me again - how much is it that you are paying to read this blog?

The plain people of Ireland: No need to be like that. We were just trying to help.

The management: ¡Callaos, perritos!

La respuesta a Dolores

My first week here in Guanajuato was spent in the home of the altogether delightful Aurora (a lady of around my own age, give or take) and her equally delightful, but slightly more intimidating mama, Dolores. As luck would have it, Aurora - who works as a public health nurse and is clearly fairly senior in the local system - spent much of the week away at a public health conference in León, so that day-to-day negotiations about such details as mealtimes, food preferences, interactions with the altogether too enthusiastic fumigator, use of the bathroom, and so forth were almost exclusively conducted with Dolores. Yes, you read that right - I said 'use of the bathroom'.

None of these exchanges was rendered easier by the fact that Dolores's main posture at rest was that of someone firmly ensconced in an antechamber of heaven, just waiting for the angel of the Lord to call, an event she clearly considered imminent. To interrupt a spirit so close to some kind of transmigratory experience could be daunting, at best. Particularly when you were already racking your brain just to get the tense right.

It had always been my intent to spend only my first week here with a family, and to find a suitable hotel to move to within that first week. For a variety of reasons, not least of which is that I am a fairly private person at the best of times. I'm also 51 years old, and though I try to be flexible, living under scrutiny for four weeks in someone else's home seems like pushing it, at best. Unfortunately, apparently nobody had communicated any of this to Dolores. Who seemed to take the news of my departure particularly to heart. Almost, it seemed, as a personal affront.
Whose final words to me, as I handed over the keys were: "You were unhappy here, living in our family".

So the purpose of this entry is to give Dolores the answer that I would have liked to give her, but had neither the nerve nor the vocabulary for. Es la respuesta que le habría dado a Dolores, sí hubiera podido:

¡Estimada Dolores!

Me molesta que tenga la (falsa) opinión de que no me disfrutaba del tiempo que pasé con su familia. La verdad es bastante más complicado y tiene que ver con cosas como tener 51 años y tener dificultades acostumbrarse al no poder dormir....

Dear Dolores: Nothing could be further from the truth to say that I didn't enjoy the time I spent with your family. However, at age 51 my ability to accommodate to certain minor details becomes severely limited. In particular, not sleeping, or sleeping only fitfully for six consecutive days will make a person crazy, and willing to do almost anything to avoid three more weeks of the same experience. Even move to - what is clearly in your mind - an unconscionably expensive hotel.
Also, estimada señora, although I understand that your reasons for asking me each and every time I made a move in the general direction of the bathroom:"Are you planning to take a shower now?" had everything to do with wanting to be sure that there would be adequate hot water in this event, and nothing in particular to do with a desire to track my bowel movements, please understand that three days into a foreign trip, when the revenge of the famed Montezuma is exerting its full wrath, the cumulative effect of having each use one makes of the facilities telegraphed to the entire household is more than a little tedious.
As, for that matter, is having someone who is not eating watch every bite you put in your mouth.
I realise that, on occasion, things might get just a little tedious in that celestial antechamber. But no fair to treat the visitors as if they were animals on display, ¿entiende?

Gentle readers: upon re-reading this entry, I am struck by, and saddened by, the note of pettiness that has crept in. However, I have decided to let it stand as is, on the grounds that sometimes one's blog entries provide a useful and necessary release function. And I do hope it is clear that any difficulties were largely a consequence of my own occasionally prickly personality, nothing more.

¡Yes! ¡We have no ferrets!

at the ferreteria

Despite what you might think, you can't find ferrets at a ferreteria.