Saturday, November 30, 2013


     Recently I went to Ukraine for the first time, to see Katie. She is teaching at a university in Cherkasy as a Fulbright Scholar. I flew into Kiev and the next night we went to Cherkasy, which is three hours by bus from Kiev and located on the Dnieper river.
     But first thing's first. We got some Ukrainian borsch (a beet-based soup) at a place in Kiev called The Black Pig. It was delicious. We also ate great Ukranian dumplings, called vereniki.

     Then we visited St. Mikhailovsky monastery. We didn't get to St. Sophia this time, because it was closed the day we were there. But next time we will certainly go. 

     We walked around the city and stopped at a place to get blini. Blini are very thin pancakes made from buckwheat flour. They are very similar to crepes and even tastier. I got one filled with mushrooms and one with apricot jam. 

Eating my blini with an elderly Ukranian lady
     After going to the Fulbright office to listen to Katie's friends give a presentation, we took the bus to Cherkasy. Katie lives with a married Russian couple who don't speak English, so it's very good practice for her. Also, her room is enormous. Another plus is that the mom makes great food! I had several servings of her borsch. I really hope Katie learns how to prepare it.

     We visited the university where Katie teaches and I sat in on a couple of her classes. She mainly teaches fourth year students, and their English is excellent. Katie cooked some buckwheat with mushrooms and chicken for dinner and I decided I really liked buckwheat—so wholesome, so diverse.
     On Saturday we went to the market, which sells clothes, food, plants, etc. It's huge and pretty cheap. We bought some fruit and spices. 

     This was not a touristy trip. It was very relaxing, we ate good food and I got to see where Katie lives and works. It's a fantastic experience for her and she is a really good teacher. There are barely any native English speakers in Cherkasy, and not very many expats, which makes communication frustrating at times. But I think in the end it is very enjoyable and beneficial—and who wants to be comfortable all the time anyway? One of the best ascpects about living abroad is the distinct absence of complacency, replaced by the constant need to improve and learn how to adapt to a different culture and succeed in a foreign country.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

"Flamenco Hoy" Award Ceremony

     Wednesday night I was in a room with over a hundred flamenco artists and aficionados at the 'Flamenco Today' award ceremony. Many of the best and most important contemporary flamenco artists were present to receive awards given by the Crítica Nacional de Flamenco, a group of influential members of the flamenco community. It is an invitation only event and my friend and I were definitely the only non-Spaniards to attend. So, why did I get to go? Long story short, I know a girl who knows a guy who I now know. Long story a little longer, I am looking for a flamenco guitar and one of my friends knows a respected flamenco guitarist. The guitarist invited the girl I know to the event, but she couldn't go and sent me the invitation. I talked with the guitarist and he said he would be happy if I attended. The flamenco guitarist, Pablo San Nicasio Ramos, happens to be on the committee who elects the winners of the awards.

     The event was supposed to start at 9pm. We showed up at 9:15 thinking we might be late. I must've forgotten what country I was in. The presenters took the stage at 10:45. In the interim, we were served drinks and several tapas, and the room filled up. We got good seats at a table near the stage, which we shared with José Anillo and company, who won an award for best singer. 
José Anillo
     The presenters would give a few awards and then the 'house band' would come on stage and play a couple of songs. The room being filled with flamenco artists, I thought the audience would  listen closely and shout timely olés. Not exactly so. They talked amongst themselves, probably wanting to enjoy the rare occurance of so many artists together in one room.

    The winner of the best solo guitar album was Juan Manuel Cañizares, which was special for me because he started my still-growing obsession with flamenco music. He was there to accept the award.

Juan Manuel Cañizares
     Another winner was La Argentina, who I am looking forward to seeing at the Auditorio Nacional this year.

La Argentina
     After the show I met Pablo for the first time, who could not have been nicer. He is a well-respected music journalist as well as flamenco guitarist and has been generous in imparting to me some of his vast knowledge of all things flamenco. I even went to his house last week to try out a guitar he had, where I received my first flamenco ¡olé! 
     Needless to say, the award show was a success and I look forward to continuing my flamenco education this year.

The winners (All of the night's winners can be found HERE. )

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sigüenza, Pelegrina, and La Ruta de Don Quijote

     After a month and a half in Madrid, it was time for some fresh air. So Emir, Camille, and I took the train to Sigüenza, a small town 130km north in Castilla-La Mancha. The priest in Cervantes' Don Quijote was from there, and it has the typical cathedral growing out of the city's center, and the typical castle rising high above. We went there as a starting point for some hiking. As I mentioned previously, I've started a 20th century Spanish poetry discussion group, and the previous week we read two poems titled Castilla, by Ramón Machado and Miguel de Unamuno. It piqued our appetite to get out of the city and see the "Tierra nervuda, enjuta, despejada..." (Sinewy, dry, spacious land). So we picked a couple poems from Antonio Machado's book Campos de Castilla and next thing we knew we were hiking in the Fields of Castilla

     The plan we decided on was to hike from Sigüenza to a very small town called Pelegrina, about 10km away. The way there happened to be part of the ruta de Don Quijote, and took us through Castilla's arid land. 

     After losing the trail for a while (appropriate for the Machado poem we were reading about there not being a trail to begin with), we came across a shepard who directed us in the right direction. We walked to the ridge to which he pointed and saw Pelegrina in the distance. 

Pelegrina in the distance
Pelegrina from the campos de Castilla
     There are 19 inhabitants in Pelegrina. At the top of the village there is a XII century castle in ruins that met its demise during the war with Napolean toward the beginning of the 19th century.

Flowers on the way to the castle
The ruins of Pelegrina's castle

     The best part of seeing the castle was probably the ascent, because there was a fig tree with low hanging fruit. It was just one of the edible wild fruits we snacked on during our hike. The others included blackberries, Italian plums, and rose hip. 

     From the town we descended into the ravine, yellow with poplars lining the river. 

The ravine
     The sun was setting as we hiked out of the ravine and looked for a place to sleep for the night. There were goats, feasting on berries. 

Dining goats
     We had lentils, rice, muffins, and delicious figs for dinner. The night passed well, though very cold. It was worth it to see the stars. The next morning we packed up and headed back to Sigüenza to catch the train. 

View of Pelegrina from the ravine
Outside Sigüenza
     The hike was a success, as was the poetry discussion, which lasted more or less the entire trip because of our proximity to the subject matter of the poems. Below is Antonio Machado's poem about "el camino." In Spanish, the word for "walker" caminante and the path he follows is the camino. The direct relation of these words is much more evident in Spanish than in English, which makes for a lackluster translation. But now that you know the meaning of caminante and camino, I will give you a half-translation of the last two lines.

"Caminante, there is no camino,
but wakes on the sea."

     Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino, y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino,
sino estelas en la mar.