The Presence of What is Absent

The Presence of What is Absent

We’re told by ancient Greek stories that Aphrodite, the Goddess of sexual love, emerged from the depths of the sea in all her radiant beauty to help us blind humans see the radiant beauty in all the world, (and not incidentally, in each one of us.) The story goes even deeper, which you can discover for yourself when you swim in the ocean or more simply, by allowing yourself to taste the sea when you eat an oyster in its shell. With the brine in your mouth and your eyes closed, it takes no imagination whatever to realize that the sea is our mother, and the mother of everything else, as well.

To me, what’s most interesting about this watercolor, which I drew on Formentera, is what is not present, that is, Aphrodite herself. To be sure, she was a constant, invisible presence as I was drawing, but not in the water, like the vision of Botticelli, but rather surrounding me, like an envelope of light. When I return to California, I’ll invoke her presence directly in another painting, but meanwhile, this is an image of an inlet on a little island off the coast of Spain, where she is about to appear. Trust your imagination. She’s there in the waves. We just can’t see her, yet.

 

Correction

There are some things about this blog that I haven’t quite figured out yet, especially the sizes of the images I can post. The image of the rose that I posted a few minutes ago, that I thought would include the whole drawing, turned our to show only a small part of it. So I apologize for possibly confusing you and offer this corrected image, which I hope will show more of the drawing. If it doesn’t, well, I’ll try again, but some other time; it’s nearly 1:00 a.m. here and time to sleep.

The War of All Against All

Karl Marx is supposed to have said that history begins as tragedy and eventually returns as farce. Too bad he’s not alive to witness the truth of his remarks as the conflict between the Catalan separatists and the central government in Madrid unfolds here in Spain, day by day, drop by drop, in all its relentless absurdity. Perhaps Marx intuited some universal truth about history, or politics, or human nature—or all three. Perhaps not. At this moment, it’s difficult to ignore the sensation that what we are witnessing here is the farce of two mutually-created firing squads aimed at each other, with the rest of Spain trapped in between.

I wrote the above words ten days ago. What has happened since then suggests an unhappy twist to Marx’s observation, namely, that farce can change back into tragedy. The day before yesterday, that is, Friday, 26 October, Cataluña’s Regional Parliament, speaking for all Catalans whether they liked it or not, once again portrayed Catalans as the oppressed victims of Madrid’s mendacity and declared Cataluña’s independence from Spain. Tit-for-tat, Mariano Rajoy, the President of the central government in Madrid, invoked article 155 of the Constitution of 1978 regarding sedition and dismissed the regional government and its president Carles Puigdemont, thereby assuming control of the Catalan government, and also, needless to say, confirming the worst of Cataluña’s suspicions about Madrid’s oppression. Whatever way one chooses to look at it, the fact is, Spain is experiencing an ominously grave constitutional crisis.

Last night there were huge demonstrations here in Valencia both in support of independence and against it. Today, Sunday, tens of thousands of people marched in the streets of Barcelona in favor of remaining in Spain. Tomorrow will bring the next hurdle for both sides when we’ll find out if the politicians who were fired by the government will test the legality of their dismissal by showing up for work.

President Rajoy has convened an election on 21 December, so perhaps both sides will be able to pull themselves back from the brink. However, at the moment, the general mood of Spain seems to be one of anguish and frustration. The separatist politicians have opened a Pandora’s Box: at least 1,500 businesses, large and small, including major banks, like Bancaixa and Sabadell and even possibly Cordoníu, the oldest producer in the world of bottle-fermented sparkling wine (founded in 1551) and of one of the most emblematic companies of Cataluña, have fled political turmoil for greener pastures in Valencia, Madrid and elsewhere. In addition, not a single country in Europe or anywhere else on the planet has recognized the existence of a Cataluña independent from Spain. The separatists have provoked a conflict between themselves and the rest of the world, but even worse, a conflict between Catalans against each other. (Americans familiar with the workings of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon will recognize the similarities.)

No one knows how all of this will play out, but from my point of view, shared by many Spaniards, is that there will be no winners here, that no one will emerge from the bitterness and resentment as a better, more enlightened citizen or a wiser, more compassionate human being. I hope we’re wrong.

Here’s a drawing of a rose. It doesn’t symbolize Spain or Cataluña or the U.S., only Common Sense, trying to be born.

Embarcadero

Boats are fundamental in the lives and livelihoods of the people who live on Formentera. It’s the smallest inhabited island of the Baleares, which include Minorca, Majorca and Ibiza and is accessible only by boat. It is roughly 30 square miles in size and, at its extremities, only 12 miles of largely infertile terrain connect one end of the island to the other.

Over the course of many centuries, Formentera has managed to survive the invasions, depredations—and the unfortunate rule– of Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Vandals, Byzantines and Muslims, as it has also survived the intermittent attacks of pirates from Northern Europe and Africa. In contrast, modern buccaneers arrive here only during the summer months, especially in August, when Europeans traditionally take their vacations. They come in waves on enormous ferries, each one of which carries hundreds of passengers in a half-hour voyage from Ibiza, and so the normal population of 10-12,000 souls who live here throughout the year swells to tens of thousands of vacationers, tourists and party-goers, mostly from Germany and Italy, who flock to the white sands, transparent waters, bars, clubs, nude sunbathing and the promise of an earthly heaven of sun, sex and alcohol. Whether Formentera will be able to survive these modern invaders remains an open question. In any case, although invaders come and go, the invaders still rule.

When I first visited Formentera in July of 2007, I was surprised to see hundreds of motor scooters for rent lined up on the streets of Es Pujols, the village where my friends, Manolo Blasco and Toti Romero have a summer home. The scooters were awaiting the arrival of thousands of Italian youths who, according to Manolo, and police records, would then drive them into ditches, smash them against trees and boulders or crash them into each other in the drunken frenzies of August. To avoid such hazards Manolo and Toti rent out their place during the month and return to their primary home in Valencia, coming back to the island only in September after most of the invaders have left.

By October, there are many less boats anchored in Formentera’s bays and inlets and the island seems to shrink as restaurants, bars, boutiques and markets close for the season. A few tourists remain, but by the beginning of November, Es Pujols will feel like a ghost town. However, the boats of the fishermen remain in their ramshackle sheds. Here’s a watercolor of one of them.

(Incidentally, one afternoon while I was drawing one of the boat houses, I felt the presence of someone looking over my shoulder. I turned and asked the elderly gentleman who had been watching me my standard question for onlookers: “Te gusta dibujar?” “Do you like to draw?” His face went blank, then he answered me in English with a shrug: “I am German.”)

Jamón

The conflict between the Catalán Separatists and the Central Government in Madrid has put a lot of us on edge, no matter which side we tend to sympathize with.  I’ll share some thoughts about the situation in a later post, but for the moment, let’s look at the lighter side of things.

During this all-too-short stay in Spain, I’ve been drawing (among other things) subjects that exist here, but not in the the United States. It would be going too far to suggest that Spaniards, nominally Catholic, have something even closer to their souls than Jesus, Mary and choirs of saints and angels, but I believe they do: It’s jamón, that is, ham.

In nearly every market you will encounter jamón, not just any old ham from any old pig, but an amazing variety of them, including bellotas, the most expensive, because those pigs eat an especially restricted diet of acorns.  You’ll also meet jamoneros, the men and women who slice the shanks or haunches, or whatever they are called, into slices so thin you could read your emails through them. Here’s a sketch of José, who works in the Central Market in Valencia. His customers come from all over the world, although most of them arrive from other European countries. He speaks English fairly well to the British and his Italian is beautiful to hear. Unlike other jamoneros, he doesn’t wear a metal apron or metal sleeves and gloves to protect himself from his “mistakes.”

At any rate, I have to close this post because it’s 9:30 at night and therefore time to go out for dinner with Paco and Isabel.  Jamón, perhaps.

 

A Tragedy for Everyone

Several people have written to ask about my impressions of last weekend’s events in Cataluña. Here they are, a week later, stated as briefly as I can.
When red and yellow flags began to appear in the neighborhood last Friday, I at first paid little attention to them. By Saturday afternoon, there were so many hanging from balconies, windows and rooftops that it was impossible not to notice them. Thinking that there was a national holiday coming up, I wasn’t able to grasp their significance until I asked a local shopkeeper. “It’s not about a holiday,” he said. “Tomorrow on Sunday, the Catalans will be voting in a referendum to decide whether to become independent from the rest of the country, or not. The flags you see represent the solidarity of those of us who oppose Catalan secession and support a unified Spain.”
Early Sunday afternoon I left Paco’s flat and was walking on Avenida Jacinto Benavente overlooking the old riverbed on my way to catch a Metro to Mislata, when I noticed many fellow pedestrians looking behind me in the direction I was coming from. I heard a growling sound, like thunder. It wasn’t a storm, but a procession of hundreds of motorcycles, each rider or passenger waving a Spanish flag. Valencian police on their white motorcycles with flashing blue lights escorted the immense parade as it roared across the Aragón bridge to the other side of the river and the echo of its passing rumble gradually dissolved into the usual Sunday racket of cars, buses and taxis.
An hour later in Mislata, while enjoying a paella with the family and friends of my friend, Isabel Navarro, I told them what  I had witnessed. This prompted Isabel to leave the table. She returned a few minutes later with a grave expression. “There are riots in the streets of Barcelona. It’s on the television. Hundreds of injuries. Police too.” For awhile, none of us said a word.
It wasn’t until I read the papers on Monday morning that the weight of the damage began to sink in. Yes, hundreds of people hurt in the streets. Police too. But the most serious injuries are deeper and more threatening. In the view of the central government in Madrid, the vote violated the basic terms of the constitution of 1978; it was illegal. From my point of view as an estranjero, I have to agree. But police preventing voters from casting ballots,confiscating ballot boxes and beating citizens bloody with truncheons is not going to snuff out the desire of many Catalans for self-determination. If anything, it will probably make the desire even more ardent. And make the opposition even more inflexible.
I’m looking all this with the sadness of an outsider who loves Spain, handcuffed, watching a disaster unfold, as if in a dream, with no power to stop it. I feel that a great deal of the blame– and shame– lies with the Rajoy government and the Partido Popular. Politicians are supposed to negotiate settlements before things plunge out of control, but then, I’m only a mute bystander watching a parade of motorcycles. Or better said, I’m helplessly watching a tragedy unfold like a bitter flower, wilted even as it blooms.

The Hang of Things

After two weeks here in Valencia, I seem to be gradually getting the hang of things: thinking and speaking in Spanish– as difficult as always– also drawing more complex subjects.

I’ve attached another drawing of one of the many bridges in Valencia, this one with statues of the Virgin and a saint, whose name I have forgotten. I hope the software allows you to see the whole drawing, rather than just a fragment, which was the case with the image of a different bridge that I posted last week. (Getting the hang of posting images seems more difficult than speaking Spanish or drawing complex subjects.)

Why bridges? Or, better said, why these particular bridges? Well, I’m trying to draw things that exist here in Spain, but not in California. So far as I know, the bridges here, spanning a dry riverbed, are unique to this place, with or without saints. I’ll share all of the sketches soon on the webpage. In the meantime, thanks for reading this.

Changes

It has been three years since I have been here in Valencia, a city I have lived in and loved for nearly 30 years. A few days ago my friend Paco and I (he’s a native of the city)  walked through the streets of the old city remembering what it was like before so many of the small shops got converted into bars and restaurants for tourists. This change has happened only during the past couple of years. Paco’s former bank is now a Taco Bell (!!!) and the shop where one was able to buy newspapers from all over the world, and where I used to buy the international edition of the NY Times every morning, closed its doors a few months ago. On the plus side, Paco says at least Taco Bell will not swindle as much money from its clients as the bank did from theirs, but still, Starbucks and KFC in Valencia only makes me sad. Yes, change is inevitable, and Paco and I may sound like a couple of grumpy old guys, but I feel like a dinosaur, walking through the streets of Now and, at the same time, in the streets of my memories of years ago.

Here’s a sketch in ink and watercolor of one of the many bridges that cross the old riverbed of the river Turia, which the Valencianos rerouted 50 or so years ago after a disastrous flood and which has since been turned into an enormous park with bicycle paths, playgrounds, soccer fields, lots of shade for picnics, fountains for dogs to splash in, feral cats, paths for runners and benches for young lovers to entwine each like pairs of octopuses.

More sketches will follow in the days to come. Meanwhile, a hug to anyone who reads all this.

Today Before

This first blogpost on the new website is not from Spain, but from Grass Valley. On Saturday I’ll arrive in Valencia and, after a day or two of sleep and recovery from the trip, I’ll post drawings and sketches, as well as commentaries on living on the other side of the world.

Valencia_Post_Office

This sketch, from an earlier visit to Spain, shows Valencia’s main Post Office. During the next two months, some of you will receive post cards mailed from this actual building.