Friday, October 16, 2015

Away and Home

Monday, October 12, 2015
While it is not Columbus Day here in Spain, Columbus's point of departure, it is a national holiday, a celebration of Spanish history meant to deflect attention, I am told, from a rising tide of Catalonian independence.

This picture exemplifies Spain's Jewish history.  

It is a piece of a Jewish headstone from a long lost cemetery embedded in the wall of an old building in Barcelona's Gothic quarter.  Little else commemorates in any manner the Jewish presence in Spain for up to a thousand years and the sadistic treatment of the Jews in the 15th century -- conversion, expulsion or death -- preceded by discrete acts of terror over hundreds of years.  
Yesterday, Steve and I took a walking tour on the Spanish Civil War, a fascinating and difficult subject that is still approached hesitantly here.  It was led by Catherine Howley, a young Irish woman thoroughly immersed and devoted to her subject.

The military rebellion, eventually dominated by Francisco Franco, began in Barcelona, but working class opposition prevailed, at first.  However, greater popular support was found in the south of Spain, and Hitler and Mussolini contributed their air forces and legions on the ground, leading to the eventual victory for fascism. 

Catherine was particularly effective sorting out the alphabet soup of left wing forces -- anarcho-syndicalists, Trotskyites, Stalinists, democratic socialists -- who were more effective at times fighting each other than fighting the fascists.  

The main thing wrong with Al Jazeera is its name.  Our very nice hotel has about 60 television stations available.  The majority are in the Romance languages, followed by German, Russian, Japanese and some in English.  Of the handful of English language news stations -- CNBC, Bloomberg News, BBC World, and Al Jazeera -- Al Jazeera stands out in the breadth of its coverage and the quality of its reporting.  CNBC and Bloomberg talk markets and indexes to a point that might even exhaust a greed merchant.  BBC World recycles too many soft news stories throughout the day.  Al Jazeera (maybe we should call it AJ) explains events carefully and generally without favor, including the always troubling news from the Mideast.  As-salamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakaatuhu.
Sort of working backwards, we took a walking tour today focusing on Antoni Gaudi, the brilliant architect.  Last week, we toured the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, his unfinished masterpiece, still under construction almost 90 years after his death. Today, we visited the outside of several of his most prominent buildings, including the Basilica, and learned something about his life.
Gaudi was part of the broad movement of Art Noveau, called modernisme in Spain, yet his work stood and stands alone.  While my aesthetic sense remains undiscovered, I am fascinated by his personality.  He came from a poor rural family, but was able to study architecture in Barcelona where his genius was recognized early.  
Gaudi never married, went to Mass twice a day, was rarely photographed, and in later years was mistaken for a beggar because of his dress and appearance.  In spite of his revolutionary art, he remained firmly conservative in his religion and his politics.  He displayed none of the profligacy often associated with artistic genius, although he eschewed convention in many of his personal habits.  
After designing a pair of lamp posts for a public square at the beginning of his career, all of Gaudi's subsequent work was for rich merchants or the Roman Catholic Church.  As a result, during the Spanish Civil War, some of his works were threatened with destruction by left-wing, working class forces.  Does it increase our appreciation of his art by trying to understand his personality, his psychology, his mishegas?

Trip Advisor, which I find generally useful when traveling, has just issued a list of "12 Truly Mesmerizing Places."
The only place on their list that I've been to is the Chateau de Versailles, and, possibly as a byproduct of my upbringing on the streets of Brooklyn which included visits to the Loew's Pitkin movie palace, I was not mesmerized.  I've seen structures, including the Basilica here in Barcelona, and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao that left my jaw more distant from my upper lip.  As to the other 11 places, eight are natural wonders and seem quite stunning from the accompanying photographs.  Judge for yourself.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

I'm happy to note that Deborah Dash Moore, distinguished historian quoted in the article, is a member of West End Synagogue.  Remember that the ill-advised program at West End Synagogue, 190 Amsterdam Avenue, that will attempt to shame me into respectability is set for Saturday, October 24th, prayers at 10 AM, Torah service at 11 AM, Kiddush at 12:30 PM and ceremony at 1:30 PM.  Of course, all of this is Jewish time, which means plus or minus 15 minutes or so, although, if you are late, you won't be forgiven.  Donations in the amount of $18 (for Chai) are welcome.

I finally found a little Heaven on Earth in Barcelona. After a visit to the Joan Miro museum atop Mont Juic (you guess), we walked down to La Rambla to find a place to eat and came across Wok to Walk, La Rambla 65. It's a tiny place on the edge of the Mercat de San Josep de la Boqueria, a food court to end all food courts. At WtW, you select the combination of ingredients and two young men immediately cook them up in a wok in front of you. There is a choice of a base, different noodles or rice at 4.95 euros, then add-ins, such as chicken (1.95 euros), tofu (1 euro), spinach (.50 euros), and finish with one of seven sauces at no extra charge. My concoction was rice noodles, chicken, shrimp, and mushrooms in a yellow curry & coconut sauce, totaling 10.05 euros. It was a large portion, freshly cooked, with a generous helping of add-ins. Seating was crude, one center counter with 4 stools on either side, facing each other. It may not have been the gustatory highlight of this trip, but it met a certain visceral need of mine.

Thursday, October 15, 2015
The flight home to New York was even more uneventful than the flight to Barcelona, mainly because it took about 2 hours longer.  In fact, the taxicab ride back into Manhattan at rush hour seemed even more interminable than the flight across the Atlantic Ocean. 

One interesting thing emerged from the taxicab ride home. We saw at the northwest corner of 46th Street and Third Avenue a newly-opened Wok to Walk, the same joint that I had my only Asian meal in Barcelona.  I admit that I was surprised this morning when a quick look on line turned up two others in Manhattan and dozens of others around the world, from Ecuador to Saudi Arabia.  So, you cannot only Wok to Walk, but Walk to Wok in far away places with strange sounding names. 

Naturally, my first lunch back, therefore, was at Wok Wok Southeast Asian Kitchen, 11 Mott Street, which is proving to be a very reliable source of Southeast Asian food, of all things.  Since roti canai is one of my favorite dishes, I ordered its components to make a large scale version.  Wok Wok's scallion pancake ($3.50) adds scallions to the "Indian" pancake (roti), but differs substantially from the traditional beloved scallion pancake à la Shanghai Gourmet.  The chicken potato curry rice bowl ($6.50) is the "canai."  Together with a large mound of white rice, I had about triple the size of the appetizer version, with commensurate pleasure.  The place was 2/3 full, but service was prompt and I got my cast iron pot of tea without delay.

Friday, October 16, 2015
Of course, I watched the Mets last night.

In other sporting news, the High Court of Justice of England ruled that competitive bridge is not a sport, although it framed the decision as "whether or not the defendant [Sport England] lawfully adopted a definition of sport which effectively excludes ‘mind sports.’"  In doing so, it ignored the insight of the late Yogi Berra: "Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical."

Another decision that bothers me was reported in the New York Law Journal yesterday.  A New York appellate court overturned a decision in the case of a medical student who claimed that his medical school violated the Americans With Disabilities Act when it gave him only ten weeks (instead of the customary six to eight weeks) to prepare for the United States Medical Licensing Exam, which he had already failed twice.  The student claimed that he was struggling with depression, which warranted an extra accommodation under the ADA.  The lower court dismissed his law suit, but was reversed on appeal. 

First of all, anybody who fails the required licensing exam is bound to be depressed, just like Don Mattingly, the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose team lost to the Mets in spite of having a payroll about twice as large.  Second, do you want your doctor to take a few extra weeks to get back to you with a diagnosis?  I realize that everybody may have problems, but should that be the patient's problem? 

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