The Politics of the Family…personal, as usual

We have been home for just over two months after three tours of duty in the field for dissertation research in Brazil and Spain. As I sink into the glory of chickens, gardening, sweet doggies, my wonderful kitchen, awesome home town, and our family (and then the many hours a day I spend working, but that’s no fun to talk about), I only manage to keep all the travel memories fresh because Little Man’s favorite screen time is watching home videos, most of which were from the road. It has taken an inordinate amount of time for me to get myself together for another blog post. There are a lot of stories to tell, but I was waiting for a reason that is intimately related to the content of this post. We have some major life changes to report and I needed to get a few things in order before sharing.

No, I’m not pregnant and I’m not quitting graduate school. We are moving! In a few months we’ll be forming a multigenerational family compound with Papa Bear’s family, but hang in there with me because it was a long journey so isn’t a short tale.

I got pregnant with The Boy during my third year of graduate school. We had planned quite carefully. We did the kitchen renovation the year before so as not to involve our fetus with toxic fumes. We got the second dog a year before so we’d have a full year to settle in with her before the baby. I made sure to wait until I was done with coursework so I would not have regular stressful deadlines for exams and papers. I knew I wanted to breastfeed and take time to be involved in mothering our kids. But I hadn’t yet internalized the fact that academia is the ultimate path of increasing returns–the more work you do, the more there is to be done.

Several events in that third year eventually brought about a major reorientation in our thinking about our family. I was elected president of our department’s graduate students, which gave me a close up view of what work and life was like for faculty and staff inside an R1 institution. Then my dad died. He had lived with cancer for thirty years, but there was something about leaving his bedside when he was in full renal failure (and I was four months pregnant) because I had to take my first round of comprehensive exams that felt like a turning point. To be fair, my advisor told me I could reschedule, but the exams are only given twice a year and I’d have had to redo three months of intensive preparation, still pregnant or with a newborn, and with no idea whether I’d do all that and still have my dad there needing intensive care. I was with him in the morning before the exam started at 8am and when it was over at 5pm I went straight back to the hospital.

Luckily he was still there, and in the end got a second wind and was able to spend about a month back in his own home with wonderful Duke Hospice, saying goodbye to his community. Though our parents had been divorced for a quarter century, our mom moved in without any idea how long she’d be there and took care of him day and night so that my sister and I didn’t have to quit our jobs or take time off school. The grit of this post is not about the politics of domestic care work, but it could be, as there are countries that spend fewer tax dollars than we do on health care and still manage to provide everyone with excellent public care and pay for things like home health assistants. I took an incomplete in one class to manage caring for him with my mother and sister. My second set of comprehensive exams came after his death, when I was 37 weeks pregnant and not capable of caring less. I passed by the hair on my chinny chinny chin. And then the baby came. I started working again six weeks after, luckily from home and on my dissertation, rather than teaching. But I look back and cringe at dragging myself out to attend a class I (quite mistakenly) thought I could handle taking that same semester, three weeks after Stinky was born. I ended up missing half the class because nursing him “during the break” took an hour.

Women in academia rarely have the freedom to combine career advancement with parenting choices like nursing on demand and attachment parenting, though I know several amazing women who I don’t think sleep, but remain on top of their fields while raising children this way. And seriously? I could plug almost any American job description in place of “women in academia” and the statement would still be true. I discovered quickly that I was at the nexus of an ugly yet deeply intellectual modern crisis. Women have striven for an equality with men that has been primarily defined within the parameters of the existing social structure. For highly educated women that meant become CEOs, become tenured professors, make as much money, get as many awards as men (none of which, it is worth noting, appear to make either the men or women at the top very happy, comparatively speaking). For many more it means fighting high schoolers for minimum wage jobs with no benefits (which also doesn’t make people very happy…hmmmm). While I do think it’s important that women occupy spaces “at the top” along with men, we have still not found any sort of balance between getting women into the full spectrum of public roles and putting our money, resources, and respect behind the equally influential work that mostly women are doing behind the scenes at home (regardless of whether or not they are also employed in the formal labor force).

America is at the rock bottom of the rich and poor world (that’s right) in terms of policies to allow work life balance for women and families at all economic levels. I have seen too many op ed pieces in the post-Time magazine debates that focus on whether women should or should not “sacrifice” themselves for their children, with too few stepping back and expressing rage over the fact that it’s not everywhere that women are forced to choose and that we could be doing things differently. Yes, breastfeeding is always “hard,” especially if you manage not to wean early (the historical natural human range is 2-7 years). If your partner and family support you, your boss supports you (and your partner’s boss supports them in supporting you!), your eventual childcare facilities don’t tell you they can’t serve your kid breastmilk, you have time to be home early on, and you are lucky enough not to have difficulties nursing (more common nowadays because of losing our mother’s generation for advice and support–who mostly did not breastfeed us–and fifty years of exposure to high levels of endocrine bending chemicals in our food and environment that impacted our ability to breastfeed our own children even before we were born!)…if all those stars align then that “hard” can be a wonderful, satisfying, transformative hard and not a depressing, tear jerking, lonely, no-win hard. The difference between these two descriptions of the breastfeeding experience is, at the aggregate societal level, a matter of public policy.

The two countries we lived in these past 18 months are considered laggards on support for “work life balance” policies because they only give four months of (fully paid) maternity leave. For comparison, the United States has zero paid parental leave. As in, zero. You have the right to take three months of unpaid leave if you can afford it. But in Brazil all companies over a certain size have to provide on site créches so that women who go back to work before six months can nurse on demand at the workplace. Both countries have public national health systems that provide high quality care (with some exceptions) with no copays and no red tape (for now). In Spain men and women get a lot of basic benefits in terms of holidays, rights to sick leave, etc, that we could only dream of–though this is being eroded as a result of austerity policies in the wake of the current economic crisis.

Regardless, fertility has fallen to unsustainable levels in both countries because policies are not supportive enough to convince women to attempt families and careers simultaneously (all women, not just elite professional women), so they push childbearing until their late thirties once they feel their family earnings and careers are stable, and often end up only having one child when they repeatedly tell us through surveys that they prefer at least two kids. In Spain fertility has been sitting far far below replacement levels for a generation and in Brazil fell from 4.4 children per woman of childbearing age to below replacement (2.2) in about 20 years. While women gaining some control over their fertility is a crucial worldwide victory, we are now having fewer children than we want in many parts of the world. The pattern is also a big policy problem because it means the dependency ratio has increased precipitously–the elderly are having their pensions paid for by an increasingly small influx of new workers.

In comparative family studies, we joke that the “US exceptionalism” discussed in a number of policy areas is perhaps most shocking in fertility rates–that we keep having babies at higher rates than other advanced industrial countries even with zero support from the state through policy or service provision. We have to rely almost exclusively on family networks and privately purchased help, even with our higher rates of poverty and family dispersion that make those two avenues comparably less attainable for American families. People in other countries, rich and poor, look at the United States and ask “who is raising their children?!”–with no guaranteed access to daycare and no parental leave (not to mention requiring that poor women receiving public benefits work at any job that will take them, no matter what impact on the family), it’s a good question. The kinds of policies that help families balance work and parenthood can be part time options, paid leave, good public day care, family allowances and payments to families with small children, social security benefit accrual to mothers who are at home, universal health care that covers families regardless of employment status, benefit structures that treat single mothers and their children as the whole society’s responsibility rather than as social pariahs, and if you are lucky enough to live in Scandinavia or some parts of continental Europe, maternity leave that can be used as you like over the course of several years and so called “daddy months” that give the family extra parental leave if dad’s take some time off too.

Well, we don’t have any of that. For women PhDs, we know exactly what is happening but haven’t done much about it. Women quit their programs (called the “leaky pipeline”), don’t go on the job market, or choose career paths that are more family friendly in administration or outside academia. I was incredibly lucky to be in a program that had just instituted a generous six weeks of paid leave for faculty and graduate students. My husband would get a paid day off if he were moving, but gets nothing for having a baby. He took two weeks of vacation and then worked from home for two weeks. It was completely insufficient and we were still much luckier than most folks where partners can’t work from home or have limited vacation options.

And somewhere amidst all of that I became quite a different person. I decided that I was not even close to ready to “go on the market” for traditional tenure track positions in my field. The previous sentence all by itself is a large part of why I waited to write this post. I needed to talk it through and make sure my advisor and committee knew my plans and would still support me before talking about it publicly (which they do, because I’m lucky and they are wonderful). I realized that what I really wanted was to have my children at home with family during the early years and that I wasn’t willing to pick up and move away from my entire family just because the most prestigious job offer came from somewhere across the country. I felt deeply conflicted knowing I only had these choices because we could afford to live without my income, and it’s a much more bitter decision for the vast majority of women who reach the same conclusion and don’t have the option of sacrificing a chunk of the family income for a period of time.

I’ll do my best to save the gory details of my personal transformation for another day, or never, but I began to question my life more radically in terms of the plans and possessions I had felt were really necessary. My brain still worked and I still loved my work, but it was just so incredibly unimportant compared to raising a whole, healthy human being. I made the very difficult decision not to quit. I am finishing, I will graduate next year. It feels like taking a mental break to sit down and work for a few hours after being fully engaged in mothering. Before and after work I apply my research skills to vaccines, development, child health, early childhood education, and I eventually dove into homesteading and self sufficiency (part of my overall rethinking of my life). I love the way that being intensively engaged in the life of a growing human keeps my mind agile and helps me get out of the narrow rut of adulthood that most of us sink into after many years of squashing ourselves into the mainstream. I learn new things every day and have expanded my nerdiness to include an obsession with raising sheep. I started to realize that all the things my mother had been doing forever, that I thought were horribly crunchy, were the things I wanted to be doing. It took a few “duh” moments before I learned to call my mom and in-laws to consult whenever I discovered a new home remedy or baking soda and vinegar cleaning recipe, since inevitably they once tried it, maybe still use it, and probably have some of the ingredients under the kitchen sink that I can borrow.

The most important advice I think anyone can give to someone who will become a parent is to try their best to do the impossible: be at peace with the prospect of changing in ways you may not be ready for, can’t predict, and that your old self might not be thrilled about.

But there it was. Do I wish I hadn’t started my PhD? Definitely not. It’s actually quite substantial for me to know that I can do difficult statistics by hand and really understand the scientific method. I can apply these tools however I want now that I have them. I like how my brain has grown and changed. I love the relationships I’ve formed with mentors and colleagues and I am really excited about the projects I am working on because I feel they matter in the real world. And yes, I think it’s valuable to have some societal seals of approval that help communicate to my kids about the work I do.

I had funding to do my field research and once I decided to stick with it there was nothing to do but go forward. As you’ve likely read in the posts over the past few years, we headed out into the world as a family, hauling a toddler over several continents for conferences, meetings, and research. I have no regrets, I accomplished the work I needed to accomplish and had quite a few really wonderful times with family and friends. But by the end when I got too tired to work I would just sit for hours with a sleeping child cradled on my lap reading about whole grain chicken feed and composting toilets. I think something in me had snapped.

When we got home I was devastated that I had to wait a whole week to get my chickens while we got their housing set up. But I planted ginger the same day, started sweet potato slips, made raw milk yogurt, and got into the garden immediately to turn what had been a massive bed of mountain mint into tomatoes, peppers, basil, cucumbers, squash, melons, and corn within just a few days. I think our neighbors thought I had lost it, and I’m not really going to argue with that. I ordered my Vitamix before we even got home so it would be waiting for me (refer back to the part where I said I had radically altered my sense of the possessions I needed for a good life, add salt).

pesty charkins as we call them, otherwise known as buff orpington pullets

oh little garden, how I missed you

But the most important part of this transformation was our ultimate realization that we needed to change our living, our life, our home. Having Papa Bear at home until 3pm everyday with the time change in Spain, spending time with our son and making meals together, was unforgettable for both of us. It was like night and day. He told me that when we had been living with his parents before our last round of travel and he would call to say he was on his way home, I actually sounded happy rather than sounding like my mind was going to be fully lost five minutes before he got home, so he’d better arrive with beer, ready to pick up the pieces. For us to stay in our current house and expand our family as we hope to, we’d need to do some expensive additions to be comfortable. But what we wanted was to be consuming less, not more. So one day when my father in law said “well, you could live here” we actually stopped and thought about it.

My husband’s parents live less than fifteen minutes from town and I wrote this past winter about how much we love being out there–in the woods but close enough to throw a stick at town. And most importantly to our son (aside from the small matter of being nearer two of his favorite people), you can still hear the trains (TRAINS!) and the airplanes from the airport (AIRPLANES!). So this is our big news and big life change–we are moving out of our beloved Trinity Park, our first house together, onto my in-laws’ land. The other reason we waited to write was so we’d have a chance to talk to our neighbors first, who have become true friends over the past six years. We are building a little addition onto the back of the grandparents’ house so we can be close without suffocating each other, helping them use empty bedrooms and expand the garden and saving everyone money. But most importantly, we’ll be together. I’ve decided to take some time off after I graduate, but luckily have some professional side projects that will keep me engaged in my field and give me a breather from the truly challenging intellectual work of parenting.

When Papa Bear and I met, we both had family very high on our list of priorities. As the kids of migrants from other parts of America, we had always been far from our own extended families and dreamed of having our kids grow up near their aunts and uncles and grandparents. My mother, who has done dozens of hours a week of childcare since our son was born, will actually be closer once we move. My sister will only be a little farther away. For the time being, my sister in law will actually be right there with us too, as she and her partner are using their parents’ driveway as a staging ground to build a Tiny House on the back of a flat bed trailer.

More than anything else about our daily life in town, we will miss our neighbors and all the friends we see every morning walking our dogs around the neighborhood. We’ve decided to keep our house and rent it out (Papa Bear is dreaming of it being our retirement house in town when the kids are grown) and have no doubt that we’ll maintain our strong connections to Durham. Losing the proximity of my closest friend and her kids, who now live just two blocks away, will be hard. And while Fullsteam and Geer Street will no longer be just a quick jaunt away, Durham’s downtown goodness (DPAC, Old Havana, Revolution, Bull City Burger, and oh the list goes on) will really only be a few extra minutes’ drive.

As someone very wise once said, “A person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside, allowing [us] to grow. Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens.” I don’t know that anything as radical as sheep will ever be in our future, but there certainly are plenty of changes ahead.

my sweet durham skyline


Pining away

There are still draft posts waiting to be written about our day trip to Ávila last weekend, our trip to Amsterdam in March, and half of our trip to Romania last October, but all I really want to do is dream about home. I have no idea how two consummate nesters thought we would survive 18 months of field work abroad. Honestly, I won’t believe we have until we get home. It helped knowing that this time it was the last round and that we have had wonderful house sitters taking care of our two black labs and our kitty cat. The weekly skype video calls with grandparents and regular email updates get us through each week.

In between submitting draft papers, working on datasets, and doing interviews I hungrily compile Google spreadsheets with plans for my garden, for building my new compost bins, for making my own whole grain feed for the eight week old Buff Orpington pullets I have patiently decided can wait to be picked up until four days after we get home (instead of the first morning after we arrive, which was my original plan until Papa Bear told me his Mother’s Day largesse did not extend that far). My honey goes through the week in a fog of childcare and work with no down time, which resulted in a migraine the first time he could afford to have one on Saturday when the work week was over. I’m definitely not complaining. Aside from the fact that southern girls don’t do that kind of thing, we are tremendously grateful for this opportunity to travel together as a family. But after two months here, we are looking forward to a change of scenery. On Saturday we will head to Burgos for the weekend, on the León side of Castilla y León and one of the places I stopped on the Camino de Santiago a decade ago. On Monday we return to the Basque Country to do a few more interviews and visit with our friends for a week before hitting Madrid for three days and then….HOME!

As I write, The Boy is dancing while watching a Tractor Tom in what I think is Russian on the iPad and slurping avocado smoothie. I think his Eastern European genes have been activated by the music. And yes, the child I don’t give processed sugar to is eating while watching television. Perhaps I am slightly redeemed by the lack of commercials, the foreign language exposure, and the fact that he just stopped and asked for a session of wild improvisational dancing filled with big wet kisses and snuggles. I think he’ll be okay. I’ll try to forget all the research I’ve done on the impact of television on the brains of small children.

So in the past week we’ve been trying to do the bits of Salamanca tourism that were still on the list. On Sunday we visited the Huerto de Calixto y Melibea, part of the old city that is just a few hundred yards from our apartment and an absolutely fantastic place to go with kids (though this is one of the cleanest places to play, you still have to watch out for cigarette butts and broken glass). We go almost every weekend, but last time we were there it was clearly about to pop with spring, so we wanted to see all the flowers in their full glory.

lovers' locks

Little Man watching a sculptor at work in the park

The park is right beside the Albergue de Peregrinos, where pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago stay when they arrive in Salamanca. It’s been fun watching them arrive with bastón in hand, heavy pack, but usually moving fast and silently, still in the rhythm of several hours hard walking.

This particular visit was very sweet because Little Man has entered a deep nesting phase himself. All of a sudden we have to drag him outside to play because what he really wants is to crawl in bed with his two dolls–Jasper and Lovey–and tuck them in and snuggle with them. He has started nursing Red Beard the Lego Pirate and zips Lovey into his down vest to “wear her” like we wear him around town. If we can get him to go outside, it usually follows a lengthy negotiation about how many toys he can take. We generally don’t let him take Lovey or Steam Engine. Lovey (a hot pink blanket with a monkey head from Womancraft in Chapel Hill) is a gift my father bought for his first grandchild just before he died–and before Little Man was born. Steam Engine is The Boy’s favorite toy, a handmade train his Tia got him on Etsy that has already suffered serious abuse and has one wheel that periodically falls off. But since we were so close to home we let him bring Lovey, Jasper, and Firetruck (a compromise) and he ran around the park with Lovey zipped tight in his jacket, stroking her head. After we left we spent a few minutes lying on the stone warmed walls outside the park, arranging his “babies” so they could nap.

Steam Engine and Alter Ego

Monday we visited the main historic building of the original Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca. While I thought I was skiving off work and was going to try to squeeze in a few phone calls before naptime, it turned out I had ingeniously and carefully planned to do sightseeing on a holiday when none of the people I needed to talk to would answer their phones anyway. It was the Día de Sant Jordi–the patron saint of books, so clearly a day that everything should be closed (In Catalonia it’s their Valentine’s day).We only discovered our excellent foresight when we tried to buy staples at the grocery store and found it closed.

Not to digress too much, but if you ever live in a Catholic country, or one of those Damned Socialist places in Europe (yes, even the conservative ones), you really must sit down and mark your calendar first thing with all national, regional, and local holidays. Not only do they actually get dignified vacation days in many of these places, but there must be two dozen official holidays where nothing is open, as well. Luckily, the University was open so we climbed many stairs for some beautiful views. The visits of the actual building are by guided tour only, but you can climb the tower for a few euro. If you have a mobile small child, make sure you are in decent shape and not afraid of heights before doing this. It was windy and cloudy and cold (as it’s been for a month), but the views were lovely and the enormous bells stole the show for kiddo.

Today it is back to work writing and making calls, at T-16 days to Home. I’ll delve back into the nutritional needs of heritage poultry when I’m too tired to work anymore. And I’ve promised my husband that I will never again accidentally send an email to his work account with the subject line “Humanure!”

Semana Santa in Salamanca: Prostitutes, Priests, and Procesiones

As always happens to me when I live outside the United States, the assumption that everyone works all the time proves deeply untrue at very inconvenient times. I am only here in Salamanca a short time to conduct interviews and gather materials, yet the Huelga General on a Thursday turned into a long weekend and was then immediately followed by Semana Santa. Needless to say, the politicians were not available. In some ways this was a blessing as it allowed me to enjoy some tourism with my family without feeling guilty that I should be working. So, of course, after five weeks without a single drop of rain, the never ending downpour begins.

For most people in Spain, Holy Week is not the time for deep religious and political reflection that I grew up with, having a parent who moved in Catholic worker circles. I remember the stations of the cross each year with a different theme to call on Catholics and Christians to practice their faith by working for justice–sometimes marking the deaths of migrant workers in North Carolina who were sprayed with pesticides or left to dehydrate in the fields, sometimes current political struggles over racism in the schools, US foreign policy toward Latin America in the nineties or our invasions of Middle Eastern countries in the nineties and then again a decade later. No, in Spain Semana Santa is about tradition more often than religion (and certainly not politics), though there are certainly plenty of fervently religious practitioners as well. The hermandades spend the year raising money to care for their Virgin or Jesús and practicing carrying the heavy pasos that are the centerpiece of the processions during Semana Santa. Those who have chosen to be devotees of a particular manifestation of Christ or the Virgin make donations to help maintain it and will follow the pasos as penitents through the streets during Holy Week.

Three pasos resting inside the XVI century Convento de San Esteban on Sábado de Gloria. Little Man was quite taken by the candles that worshipers lit for their Virgin or Jesús, so we lit a few for Grandpa Chappy.

I lived in Seville during Semana Santa in 2003, which is one of the most intense places to observe this ritual. There is a lot of old money in Andalusia and the hermandades are socially and politically important. Most of them are still all male, though this is beginning to change. Back in the “old days,” the penitents would flagellate themselves along the way and the young women would wait with handkerchiefs and show their admiration for a particular fellow by running up to wash away his blood. In contrast, here in Salamanca I was struck by how many of the hermandades seemed dominated by women and young people. In Seville I didn’t actually see much but crowd mobs because balconies and terraces are rented and reserved months in advance and I didn’t happen to live where I had one of my own. As a southerner, watching the processions in Seville with their pointy white hats looking exactly like klansmen evoked powerful feelings of fear. But I tried to remind myself that the KKK copied this traditional attire, which is meant to allow penitents to repent privately in communion with God, away from the eyes of the world–though of course they also work very well to hide the faces of fearful criminals.

The solemnities of Semana Santa begin in earnest on Jueves Santo, so I nearly forgot what was happening until we tried to buy bread on Thursday and realized with a jolt that we might not be able to feed ourselves at home for several days. Papa Bear mused that he now understood why the stores had been packed the day before. And then at 10pm, when I was already feeling guilty for letting Little Man stay up so late, I looked out the window and realized there were hundreds of silent people shuffling their feet in the cold standing right below my window. I noticed because I had just stripped with the shutters open to get ready for bed. Oops. And then the drums began.

Originally I had thought that because we were living on top of the old Roman road, we might have some processions pass right below our window. My husband had looked at the schedule and announced that unfortunately none were coming our way, but apparently the late night entrance of the pasos that would be stationed outside in the Patio Chico the next day had gone overlooked. There was no going to bed now, because the music was thundering, shaking the walls and so eery and beautiful that we bundled up and went out on the balcony to watch.

Madonna beginning her procession, carried by young women.

First came the white ghostly hordes dragging heavy wooden crosses through the street, evoking an antiquity that was marred only slightly when someone would stop to answer a cell phone. The crowd was absolutely silent and kiddo’s chirping about the music and the lights and the candles drew many disapproving glares from below (but really, how do you make a two year old understand the solemnity of the crucifixion?). We shushed and watched, in awe of the mystery created by costumes, incense, and multi-ton floats made out of gold and silver and precious gems carried on the backs of dozens of the faithful. The pasos crossed the Roman bridge followed by their marching bands and penitents and then stopped to slowly, painstakingly turn the corner to continue into the Old City and up the steep hill to the church. Because it had been raining, the Madonna and Christ were covered until the procession into the city began. The silence was broken only for wild applause when the plastic coverings were carefully and lovingly lifted away. When the grieving Madonna passed below the window I could see the tears engraved on her cheeks, lit up by hundreds of tall candles, and all I could think of was the utter devastation that any mother would feel at the suffering and execution of her child and that this scene may have actually taken place across the world on a similar two thousand year old Roman road.

When we finally got to sleep at 11pm, I felt I had just shut my eyes when the thundering began again. I am pretty sure it was the bands exiting the city after leaving their burdens at the doors of the church, but I can’t be sure because all I could do was lay there and hope the baby didn’t wake up, which he didn’t. It was just me lying awake while the house shook for an hour.

Watching the rain from the interior patio of the Convento San Esteban

On Good Friday our dear friends from Bilbao came to spend the weekend with us and so from that point on we received real explanations of everything we saw. Since my friend majored in art history and then spent years restoring ancient churches and public buildings, including some of the most important sites in Madrid, we were glad we had waited to do our religious tourism until they arrived. We visited the Convento de San Esteban on Saturday while it poured freezing rain outside and kiddo yelled and ran irreverently around the old interior patios used for meditation by the priests in days gone by. Really, old churches are fantastic places for small children. Everything is made of unbreakable stone and nothing important is close to the ground (in part so that crowds of dirty peasants wouldn’t damage valuable paintings and sculptures). And in Spain, where even believers aren’t especially solemn and churches are major tourist destinations, people don’t care much if you make noise. When we visited the choral chamber where the monks would sing from enormous hand scribed tomes of music, my friend leaned over and whispered to me “you see the hinges on the choral benches? Well, most of them lift up with a little wedge underneath so the older priests could rest and still look like they were standing up. And I can’t tell you how many of these I have restored that had pornographic carvings on the underside of the seats–mostly images from the Kama Sutra…” Ah, the Catholic Church. There is something sickly endearing to me about the institution because it just doesn’t seem to try very hard to hide its enormous sins and contradictions. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Easter Sunday the weather cleared for a few brief hours and we accidentally happened upon the Resurrected Christ on his way to the Plaza Mayor (“that naked man has a diaper on!”). I have to say, the music is my favorite part of Semana Santa and I found I was only interested in the pasos that were accompanied by full marching bands. The members of the hermandades handed out carnations to women in the crowd and despite the joyful nature of the day, many of the penitents looked decidedly hung over and ill.

Salamanca has a special tradition to close out this time of solemn commemoration: Lunes de Aguas. The University of Salamanca was at its peak in the XVI century, with 8,000 students (for context, Madrid had 11,000 inhabitants at that time) from privileged backgrounds, bringing to the city great demand for food, drink, and prostitutes. The city was known for being an important center for learning and religious study, as well as for XVI century partying. When Felipe II passed through Salamanca during his nuptuals, he was not impressed with the unpiousness of university life and issued an edict that all women “de vida alegre” were to be expulsed from the city during lent and Semana Santa. These working women were exiled across the river Tormes, feeding themselves and their families lord knows how (the lords didn’t think about such things) for 40 days. To ensure they left, and more importantly, came back, a priest who was nicknamed El Padre Putas ferried these ladies across the river, stayed with them through lent, and then organized the masses of sex-starved students to row across the river to bring them back the Monday after Easter Monday…Lunes de Aguas.

This is now a holiday in all of Salamanca province and next Monday we will be joining the families on their day off for a picnic on the river bank. This should be a vast improvement on this past Easter Monday when, with Christ safely risen, my lovely marching band serenade at midnight was replaced by hail battering the windows. As usual, Papa Bear and Baby Bear slept soundly while I lay drafting this post in my head for the hours it took me to fall asleep again.

Economic Crisis and History in Salamanca

For me, Salamanca was a dusty early dawn memory from a decade ago. I was taking an overnight bus from Sevilla to somewhere–visiting friends I had made on the Camino de Santiago. While many of my study abroad colleagues visited Rome, Paris, or London, I spent my weekends taking overnight buses either to the Basque Country to visit my then-partner’s family or to Valencia and Barcelona to see the close friends I had made as a (secular) pilgrim walking 500 miles across northern Spain. I had a vague memory of the bus exiting the highway to make a stop in Salamanca and I opened my eyes to see the sun rising behind the most beautiful city-scape I had ever seen.

Salamanca is a fairly small city of 200,000 inhabitants but houses the most important university in Spain. The University of Salamanca was founded in 1218, the third oldest in Europe, and today has 30,000 students. Aside from the university, most of the economy depends on tourism, which partially explains the 34.4% unemployment rate here. The city is part of the region of Castilla y León, which unlike the Basque Country (where we spent the fall) has not historically been run by politicians interested in investing in public services and infrastructure.

What many of the austerity advocates in international economics fail to appreciate is that public employment is a crucial sector of employment, particularly in the post-industrial economies of Europe. It buffers society when private markets fail to generate employment and when public budgets are cut in the name of “efficiency,”  catastrophic levels of unemployment often result. This is precisely what happened to us in North Carolina last year, when unemployment increased despite private markets strengthening because government budget cuts produced the layoff of over 7000 teachers, sanitation workers, fire fighters, and policeman. Here, while major cuts to services have not taken place (as a slightly poorer than average region, Castilla y León is a net recipient of central fiscal resources, so isn’t bleeding its own money yet), a professor I met with recently told me that the conservative government had closed all the soup kitchens that had been opened under the socialist government decades before. Of course, the professor said, it wasn’t all party ideology–back when the socialists had opened soup kitchens, most of the poor were Spaniards, whereas now they were mostly immigrants, the “others.” I had commented on how few beggars I saw on the street, given how high the unemployment rate was. He smiled sadly and said “in the winter here, if they stay on the street they die.” I never got a chance to ask where they went to get out of the cold.

As we walk around the breathtaking buildings of the old university, looking at the cathedrals, spires, bell towers, and 2000 year old Roman bridge, my husband and I have been musing about the way history shapes the economy and why oppression and unfair economic development patterns generate path dependencies that are hard to break out of, even when the formal institutions of oppression are gone. None of these beautiful buildings could be built without the cheap labor of feudal and peasant society, and most importantly without the rents from the plunder of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Though not the first inhabitants, the Roman Empire, with a strict hierarchy and the use of slave labor, was responsible for the first major infrastructure built here. The city was depopulated and destroyed in the wars between the Moors and the Catholics a thousand years later and was repopulated in the 12th century. The old cathedral dates from this period, built by the monarchy. The heyday of Salamanca, like many cities in Spain and Europe, came from the 16th to 18th centuries when the Spanish monarchs were flush with gold stolen from the Americas or earned in the African slave trade. What would Salamanca be without its university? Without its monuments and buildings? How would the people here make a living today without tourism? The physical legacies of this unequal development have created an avenue for the sustenance of European communities as agriculture and manufacturing have declined. And Spain, though suffering much damage in the Napoleonic wars and its own civil wars, was spared the mass devastation of historic monuments and buildings that took place in the countries that were at the heart of WWI and WWII.

old roman bridge

at the new cathedral

These are the complicated realities in which we live. I am incredibly grateful that Spain has what it has. There is nowhere easier to be with a toddler than a pedestrian only urban center and there is nothing more glorious than stepping out of your apartment in the morning onto a street a thousand years old to look out over a bridge dating from biblical times. And Salamanca has some precious contrasts of modern and historic that have been an important part of our time here this first week. Directly across from our apartment is the Church of Santiago and the Camino de Santiago through Salamanca passes right in front of our house. The broad flat patio in front of the church becomes a congregating space for skateboarders in the warmth of the late afternoon, after the morning cold has thoroughly worn off. The city has even installed ramps just for them. Everyday we go down in the afternoon after naptime and watch the skateboarders.

After the first day watching them, a fascinating thing occurred. Little Man would comment whenever they fell “they fell down!!” and I would say “yes, and then they get up again. Learning to do any new thing takes practice and hard work and so they are practicing very hard.” He has always cried when he fell, often without tears, as a way of showing his sad feelings or frustration, even when he isn’t hurt. We support and respond to his expression and within a second or two he stops and goes to inspect the offending bump in the road or stone on the ground. After the first day watching the skateboarders as they fell and got up, fell and got up, clapping for each other (producing loud clapping from Little Man “Yay, they DID IT!!!”) when they achieved a difficult feat, he stopped crying when he fell. It was quite sudden. Unless he feels hurt, he doesn’t cry anymore when he trips or falls.

watching skateboarders across the street from our balcony

Yesterday on the other side of the plaza were a group of ragged looking young people juggling and practicing circus tricks. It appeared to be a class of some kind. This was the pinnacle of our day and kiddo learned lots of new words (in English, luckily not the horrendous cursing he was hearing in Spanish), though mostly he was interested in having me identify the gender of these creatures with varying types of hair and clothing. I was glad he couldn’t understand Spanish when one sulking boy started yelling racial epithets at the one black boy in the group, taunting him and calling him names. It reminded me of a master’s student from Latin America who I met here and who told me she had been lucky not to have “too many” bad experiences as an immigrant and that a friend of hers had abandoned her program after one too many experiences of anti-immigrant discrimination, going home bitter toward Spain and Spaniards. These things are important reminders of our privilege as white visitors. While if you are an American nationalist you might have a hard time here listening to the universal dislike of US imperialism, as long as you are a white American, you certainly won’t experience the anti-immigrant intolerance and racism that now plagues most of western Europe.

Spain, as the second most popular destination for immigrants after Germany, is struggling to assimilate a massive number of newcomers in the past 15 years. For the most part I have seen greater tolerance and respect for the humanity of immigrants here than I do back home in the US, I think because only a generation ago Spaniards were working poor immigrants in France and Germany and remember those experiences well. But after expulsing Jews and Arabs a thousand years ago, Spain has been a fairly homogenous society for a long time and is only just beginning on a path toward tolerance, anti-racism, and immigrant rights. And there is no guarantee that the humanitarian spirit I’ve seen among most Spaniards will prevail in the current climate of crisis.

Our first week has thus been a lively one. We have been hospitably welcomed by our contacts at the university and even rented our apartment from a colleague here. As in Bilbao, I spend the mornings working at home while Papa Bear roams the streets of the city with Little Man, looking for new parks and play equipment. At midday they come back for naptime and then we swap. We have 8 hour shifts with no time for ourselves–childcare, work, and sleep. But we are on an incredible adventure in one of the most beautiful parts of the world and the journey continues to be a spectacular one. In two days we are off to Amsterdam for a workshop and we will spend Little Man’s 2nd birthday there. He’ll get his first taste of cake and hopefully a special surprise, if I can pull it off!

Salamanca: The Beginning of the End

Durham, North Carolina is home. But I’m not sure whether Little Man knows that. He’s been in Toronto, London, Pittsburgh, Salvador, Imbassaí, São Paulo, Brasília, Seattle, Bilbao, his grandparents’ house, and as of today, Salamanca. From the time he was seven months old, we’ve lived as long abroad as in our own home. Though we’ll be headed to Buenos Aires all together in August for a conference, this is the last leg of my dissertation field research, so we are at the start of the home stretch before settling back in to garden, writing, and family.

Doing field work with a baby (now toddler) has allowed for an incredible science experiment. We place the infant, then toddler, in exactly the same situation over and over again and observe the differences. On our flight to Brazil, Little Man was only a year old, but we traveled during the day and he was standing on my lap trying to open and close, screw and unscrew things for nine hours. I can’t recall how many times he called our long suffering flight attendant. On the way to Spain the first time, he was 18 months old but the flight was overnight so he just slept and nursed on my lap the whole way. It was perhaps the most exhausting for me, as he weighed as much as a three year old. On the way home from Spain this last time, we lucked out and had a whole row to ourselves to spread out, which somehow didn’t help as much as I felt it should have. Today, we are two weeks out from the baby’s second birthday and he’s just not a baby anymore. We had to buy him his own seat and he is sitting next to his daddy asking “what’s that?” about absolutely everything. He demanded the iPad incessantly, until electronics were finally permitted and then didn’t want it anymore. For the first time ever he’s doesn’t seem to care about being on my lap during take off, throughout which he made airplane sounds “whooosh! vrooooom!” while flying his hands around. Since you can’t see the plane from the inside, it was a somewhat anti-climactic experience.

I sat down across the isle, took a deep breath feeling blessedly unburdened (I sent in The Article Draft exactly ten minutes before we left the house and was hurrying the laundry to dry faster until the absolute last minute…and we still forgot the bibs), and promptly realized I had nothing to do. I hadn’t brought a book, there was nothing new on the Kindle (having finished Book 5 of  A Song of Ice and Fire a few weeks back) and we had neglected to download any shows or movies. So, it seemed as good a time as any to get our blog going again. As I write, The Child is trying to “birdy feed” masticated peanuts to his father.

We tend to only do blog posts about our travels to interesting places, far far away. But in reality we should have done one about our stint home. For the past six weeks we’ve been living with my in-laws, who live on a beautiful acre in an intentional community with about 25 other families and dozens of acres of wooded common land, all surrounded by protected forests belonging to a local university and used to study forestry. The “rules” for their neighborhood include things like prohibiting the use of synthetic, lingering pesticides and fertilizers and cutting down hardwood trees over a certain size. Decisions are made by consensus. It’s where my husband grew up, where I spent countless dusty summer afternoons waiting on my sister as she played with his sister, and exactly the kind of place we love to be.

The Creek in Winter

While putting two families on top of each other temporarily–without the arrangements you’d make for a permanent stay–has its share of difficulties, we found we loved being out of the city and so close to family. At night it was so dark we had to get up to turn off our cell phones and sleeping computers because their power lights created an invasive set of flashing lights throughout the bedroom, something that never bothered us at home where street lights shine right in the bedroom window and make it look like a full moon year round. There were no drunk college students trashing the yard, no sirens, no traffic, and a beautiful view every morning from the wall of windows that provide passive solar heat during the winter and a green shaded view of the garden in the summer. We love our neighborhood in town, but have increasingly realized that many of our favorite things about “town” are things we don’t do anymore now that we have The Boy.

In the mornings I would watch kiddo help his Grandma do her vitamins, sneaking a DHA fish oil pill to chew on when no one was looking. Every morning when we came downstairs he would look at the vice on the doorframe clenching a loose piece of trim waiting to be repaired and say “That’s Grandpa’s Tool!”. Once he even picked up a letter opener that my father had made decades before for my husband’s father and said “Grandpa Chappy made that!,” recognizing the handiwork of the Grandpa he missed meeting by a mere 4 months.

There’s nothing like having children to reconnect a family after adult children have been out of the house for a while. Of course, in our cases this never really happened, as both my husband and I and our siblings lived at home for years as adults. The third generation can really alter the dynamics of your relationships with your own parents. We’ve seen this go both ways with our friends–bringing parents and adult children closer together and also opening up schisms around parenting philsophies that weren’t salient before. For us the arrival of Little Man created new avenues for connecting with our parents, to whom we already had strong ties.

It does not surprise us to find that more and more of the people we know are deciding to form households with their parents. To me, it seems like a way to rediscover the most basic function of community–mutual support–in addition to the economic benefits. For those who are lucky enough to grow up in healthy homes, parents spend years putting their more immediate needs and preferences on the back burner in order to give children the foundation they need to become healthy human beings, capable of contributing to a kind and loving society. Now we have our own children and are trying to do the same thing for the next generation. Sharing a home with our parents allows them to be part of the lives of their children and grandchildren, gives young children the gift of spending time with their grandparents and understanding the multi-generational nature of life, and completes the cycle by creating an atmosphere where aging in place gives our folks the little bit of extra help they begin to need for what are often several decades of good health and independence.

Leaving this time was extra hard, since it meant saying goodbye to my mom, who has taken care of kiddo almost daily since he was a wee one, my husband’s parents who we have been living with, and his aunties and their fellas, who he’s been seeing every weekend at our big Sunday night dinners. I was having nightmares of him asking where everyone was nonstop and being miserable, but I do tend to forget how incredibly adaptable they are at this age. We spent two days telling him we were gearing up for an Adventure on an Airplane and he was so excited he wanted to stop at every window in the airport to look at the planes.

We are old hands now, so we finally appear to have gotten our packing right–lots of organic peanut butter, one suitcase dedicated exclusively to our favorite diapers and wipes, half as many clothes and shoes as we took on the first round, two laptops (since we are both working from home), the iPad (or “Bookuh”), several electric current converters, and a whole lot of snacks and small toys with wheels. And the harmonica!!! My mom topped it off with a Thomas the Train lunchbox (his first!) filled with crayons, snacks, tiny puzzles, Plan Toys box cars, and a magnifying glass to see the pamphlet with bright photos of tiny bugs and butterflies. This time we remembered the tendency for Spanish homes to be very cool in the winter due to very expensive electricity, so we brought our snug sheepskin slippers and the awesome dragon booties my mother in law got kiddo for Christmas. The only thing we forgot was our super bib made out of silicone that catches All Dropped Things, which has already caused a lot of cursing. But then again I think our kid is the only two year old we know that still uses bibs so I guess the dream of clean clothes after eating had to end sometime.

We could taste the jamón and Manchego cheese in the air when we stepped off the plane and a few short hours later we were romping across the old Roman bridge in Salamanca…which happened to be about 20 feet from our front door. Technically we weren’t romping but “shaking our sillies out,” as kiddo yelled over and over to all passersby.

During those few short hours of travel we collected our massive set of belongings (yeah, you only thought you had become more efficient at packing), tried to take a cab to the train station and found that our American and Brazilian selves had ill prepared us for the EU taxi: we had too much stuff and were given the stink eye when suggesting that they transport our beloved child without a carseat. So instead we took the metro to the bus station and went to Salamanca from Madrid by road. Baby collapsed on top of me and I collapsed across three seats and woke up to Papa Bear announcing our arrival. The taxistas in Salamanca had no problem with our luggage or lack of carseat for the quick trip through narrow medieval cobblestone streets. He told us it hadn’t rained in 2 months and unemployment had skyrocketed (“well, we borrowed money we didn’t have”) from 6000 to 33,000 people since the start of the crisis. This in a town of 154,000 people. We pulled up on a pedestrian street with the cathedral to our back and low arcing 1st century Roman bridge ahead, pointed to a doorway whose former owners’ names were engraved on the stone in centuries’ old weathered Latin, and said ” bueno, aquí estás.” And we were home…at least for the next few months. And he didn’t start asking for his aunties and grandparents until we’d been here for a whole day.


It is Thanksgiving Eve and I have just finished singing my son to sleep while he nurses on my lap on the living room couch. This is our nightly ritual now–in an apartment that is not Home in a beautiful country that is also not Home. We will be celebrating Thanksgiving on Saturday, since both I and the friends we’ve invited over are working tomorrow. We are going to make turkey if we can find it, otherwise it will be chicken. There will be mashed potatoes. There will be sweet potato pie. There will be deviled eggs. There will be grilled brussel sprouts, bread, and wine. My only concession to the dominant industrial food paradigm is that I will not be making my own pie crust. I have nothing to say about that. Our friends were surprised when I said we were eating at 4pm, since in all the movies they say Thanksgiving dinner happens at night. I wasn’t sure how to respond. In Spain it’s pretty common for folks not to crawl out of their beds for lunch until this time on a weekend, so it all lined up nicely.

What does Thanksgiving mean to me? The question we were all asked in grade school. In our house growing up was a wonderful collage my younger sister had made in primary school when asked to create a picture of Thanksgiving. An incredible artist even at that age, she made an eerily realistic collage depicting a white pilgrim gruesomely killing an Indian at close range with a rifle while a turkey walked by. I certainly shared that assessment of mainstream Thanksgiving nonsense and felt outrage over the invented history told to school children that white-washed the actual power relations between the invaders and the native people who lived here first.

While we made Thanksgiving our own, it still did not become an especially important holiday to me until after I had lived away from home the first time. Since the first time I lived away from home was in another country, it was an abrupt shift. Thanksgiving has slowly but steadily become my favorite holiday, while at the same time my general love of holidays has increased.

We never had a family-centered Thanksgiving tradition at our house. Our parents were immigrants from far away states (on opposite ends of the country from each other) and divorced when we were young. We were adopted into the big community Thanksgiving potluck of our mom’s dear friends and neighbors, which has been my Thanksgiving for about a quarter century now. The tradition remained when they moved to a different town, when I married and then had two Thanksgivings to juggle, and even reincorporated my dad once Enough Time had passed, though he was too sick to go the year before he died.

My husband’s family also has a big friend’s potluck, which I think must be something common in a place like the Triangle where almost everyone is from Somewhere Else. It’s wonderful, especially since it has become a Thanksgiving for my sister as well due to my intelligent decision to marry her childhood best friend’s brother (I was thinking ahead). I love my Thanksgivings–we go to one at 1pm and the other between 3 and 4pm and we eat twice. This year we are missing all of them. This will be our 3rd Thanksgiving without my dad and it doesn’t seem to get any easier.

Why is Thanksgiving so important for me and why have I turned into someone who turns Christmas music on as soon as it is cold for five minutes? I am totally unreligious (not to say unspiritual), but I can’t wait to do Advent, Hanukah, Christmas, Epiphany (my mom did a small gift every day through Epiphany to keep Christmas Day from becoming an emotional roller coaster and Spaniards do all their gifts on January 6th, since that’s actually when the Kings brought Jesus his presents), the Yamim Noraim, and who knows maybe even Kwanzaa with my son. And I mean do them with honor, not use them as an excuse to buy more stuff or as a lesson in cultural diversity. Why?

First, I love magic and holidays are magic. I don’t care about the role of the greeting card companies, cold weather is magic, the end of the harvest is magic, all the religious and mystical celebrations that developed over thousands of years are magic. The world is short on magic. My parents moved heaven and earth to make our childhoods magical–in different and complementary ways–and I want that back.

Second, the older I get the more I appreciate the importance of human connections. The more I travel the more aware I am of how worn the threads of our social fabric have become in the United States. There are many forms of economic development and many kinds of culture. As a new country with an immigrant population, we’ve arguably had more choice in these matters than some. I think we’ve chosen poorly on several fronts and we have to radically reconsider, starting by looking at the damage we’ve done to our own communities and our own families. But I’m not going to go there today, except to note that Thanksgiving turns the tables just a tad, since the richest and most highly educated in America are the ones most likely to move often and be somewhere far from their loved ones on this day, so they are disproportionately cursed with having to travel. Suffice it to say, I am grateful for these experiences I’ve had so that I fully appreciate the things I love about home and have some good ideas for doing something about things I don’t love.

Finally and most intimately, these holidays have become more important because I have been really lucky to have my own family and community grow stronger over time, accompanied by a growing awareness about how to lead a fulfilling life that honors humanity and follows my own bliss. Becoming a parent has probably been the most radical part of that process, but without the particular life partner I was lucky enough to find, without my family of origin and his, that experience could certainly have been a very different one. Parenthood has deepened my relationship with my mother in new and wonderful ways and has made my mother in law one of my true heroes. I can’t wait to get home in 8 days so that my son can get back to this wonderful family.

Actually, there’s one last thing I really love about holidays. A painfully large number of Americans cannot be with their families on special days. Some are fighting wars. Some are incarcerated. Some do not go back to their families because their families ceased to be Home when they became tainted by hate or violence. Since there are over 7 million Americans in prison or on parole (and 1.5 million active military), I think it’s particularly important to remember that those folks often can’t do much of anything to create a community for themselves.

Still, I am always surprised by how powerfully humanity is drawn to the formation of community wherever we find ourselves. And that’s where I was headed with this. My two Thanksgivings make family out of community and reinforce, strengthen, and expand the connections between us. We commemorate the high holy days with friends when we are home and as we are doing this year, we take our holidays with us on the road. This happens in the military, it happens for the many folks whose communities no longer overlap with their families of origin, and I’m sure that for some folks it even happens behind bars.

For many reasons our communities and our social and familial bonds are under more stress than ever before. Holidays allow us to creatively reforge and renew our connections with the rest of humanity. I take that less and less for granted as I get older, and therefore enjoy these days more and more. Tomorrow I get a rare afternoon with my baby AND my husband, so we will be compiling all the ingredients to make a Thanksgiving feast in our home away from Home, and more importantly, with our friends.

It’s Complicated: Election Day in the Basque Country

Sunday, after two weeks of rotating colds, my little family crawled out of its hole and went to the park. I was herding Little Man away from the road and turned at the sound of someone screeching at my husband in Spanish and found a little well dressed elderly woman yelling something about people having the right to do as they pleased. I thought she had lost her marbles, but my husband just said good naturedly “No hablo castellano” and she smiled and patted him on the shoulder approvingly and said “ah, entonces bozkatu!”

What was all this? We had to put the puzzle pieces together. She had been hollering at my husband to let the poor child go where he wanted–he had understood by her gestures that she was referring to my herding attempts but didn’t get anything else. I had missed the beginning so didn’t realize she was actually talking to us. When he told her he didn’t speak Spanish, she thought he was saying that he was a native Basque speaker only. She was wearing a pin for the recently legalized Basque independentist party, Amaiur, and she approved of his linguistic purity and encouraged him to go vote (in Basque, bozkatu). The tiniest of differences and misunderstandings caused all three of us to interpret the same interaction in totally different ways. The problems in the Basque Country are by no means tiny and aren’t primarily about misunderstandings, but it reminded me of how incredibly easy it is to interpret the same world so differently.

I came to the Basque Country to study its politics, so of course on October 20th, the day we went to Romania for a family trip, ETA unilaterally declared an end to the use of violence, which paved the way for the parties of the izquierda abertzale (leftist pro-independence movement) to participate fully in the elections. Sunday there were general elections in all of Spain. While participation was down everywhere else compared to the last elections, in the Basque Country it was up. Why? Because much of the izquierda abertzale had previously called for abstention. The primary party in this grouping was historically aligned with ETA and refused to formally reject its use of violence, which resulted in it being banned from political participation in recent years.

This is not a short post, so I’ll go ahead and tell you that for the first time the independentists are the largest bloc from the Basque Country in the Spanish congress, surpassing the powerful Basque Nationalist Party and winning more seats than anyone thought they would. It suggests they are likely to win an even bigger victory in next year’s local and regional elections. The conservatives who won a stunning victory nationally came in 4th in the Basque Country.

The elections were called half a year early by social democratic president Zapatero because of a total collapse in public confidence in his government due to the economic crisis and its management. The social democrats (the PSOE) suffered the worst defeat in their history Sunday night, which this timeline of elections illustrates. The other major party in Spain is the PP, the christian right whose roots lie in Franco’s forty year dictatorship, though it offered assurances of moderation and unity on Sunday night. The PP now has an absolute majority, it’s largest win ever.

It may be that I’m not going far back enough with my general background. But readers should understand that the very short story I tell below, as long as it may seem, is woefully incomplete for the people who have lived the violence in the Basque Country. It will inevitably seem too generous to some and too critical to others. I have read a great deal and spoken to many people, but there isn’t a single telling that will seem fair to everyone.

Several years ago I was lucky enough to take part in a series of interviews on the prospects for peace in the Basque Country. I interviewed a young Basque representative in the Spanish congress whose leg was blown off by an ETA bomb, an anti-nationalist activist who survived multiple assassination attempts, a former officer of the Basque autonomous police who worked under threat of assassination every day, a frustrated union leader who felt other social problems were permanently subordinated to “the national question,” the widow of a victim of ETA, a former member of ETA who left the organization after the transition to democracy, a Basque journalist who was tortured less than ten years ago in Madrid while being held without charges or access to counsel, and an independentist NGO leader who preferred to speak to me in English rather than have to use Spanish, among many others. One of my dearest friends had her family torn apart by ETA’s attempt to blow up the home of her brother, a journalist, as he entered with his wife and 18 month old baby. They survived, but had to leave the Basque Country to raise their child without fear. This is a small community, with 1.7 million people many of whom still live in small towns. There is no hiding and everyone knows everyone else, even people who tried to kill you or murdered someone in your family. The challenges to “convivencia” are immense and the sensitivity to how this history is told is high.

Those experiences instilled in me a deep humility and awareness of the need for peace, the need for reconciliation (eventually) and the difficulty of even talking about some of these problems openly. On the streets of Bilbao, people often talk about politics in a whisper. Whenever I hear people whispering, I perk up my ears and almost always find that they are discussing politics. I know families who don’t talk about politics at all and children who have no idea how their parents vote because too much rides on the answer. I was recently chastised gently in an interview with an independentist politician for using the term “national” to talk about politics in Spain. If there is anywhere that linguistic code carries deep meaning, it is here.

At the same time, I don’t want to paint this as a hopeless place where fear rules, because what is amazing is that it is not. Six years passed between when I lived in Bilbao the first time and our current stay. I was shocked at how much warmer and happier people seemed on the street and it was clear in my conversations with people here that the specter of terrorism was less powerful than it had been. I’ll save my gushing over Basque culture because I promise I am going to really get into it in another post. But this is the only place in the world that has succeeded in developing economically, surviving the crisis of deindustrialization in the eighties (which decimated Basque ship building and mining), all in the context of political violence. Social innovation, creative business, associationalism, the arts, culinary traditions, and many other areas are incredibly vibrant here.

When I was a poor college student in Seville in 2002 and my colleagues were jetting around Europe seeing the sites, I took my leftover student loan money and bought bus tickets to travel around Spain. I walked 500 miles across the entire northern part of the country. Spain is incredible. I’ve seen a lot here, and the Basque Country is definitely something else. So now I’m going to tell a brief (very long) history of the violent and political conflict here, as fairly as I can, so you’ll understand why election day here is always, well, complicated. And this one especially so.

The cameraman for these newlyweds takes a shot on the river, but there is a grungy pro-independence rally in between

Spain is a multinational state. About a quarter of the population does not speak Spanish as a first language. Historically, the strongest national identities belonged to the Gallegos in Galicia, the Catalans in Catalonia, and the Basques in the Basque Country. Of course, the Valencians and those living in the Balearic Islands also speak dialects of Catalan (don’t say that to them, it’s Valenciá!), not to mention Aragonés. The parts of Spain that were the most economically important were granted special protections of local custom during the consolidation of the kingdom, similar to what the Romans had done many centuries before. It is therefore not surprising that the Basque Country and Catalonia are some of the wealthiest regions in Spain and the most autonomous, or that most other regions are discovering their unique regional histories and playing these up–given what a successful strategy it has been for winning valuable economic and political concessions from the central government.

Cultural and linguistic difference is not unique to Basques in Spain, but Basque is not a romance language, as are the others, and the historic local laws of the Basques (fueros) were quite distinct. In particular, the fueros first written down in the 15th century kept the Basque lands apart from wars not in their territory, protected a unique judicial system, maintained internal borders with the rest of Spain, and made all ethnic Basques nobility, which was totally novel and rejected the feudal system practiced elsewhere, as well as making almost all Basques exempt from paying taxes. The Basque fueros protected inheritance by any firstborn child, male or female, and was practiced in no other modern monarchies. While there are historic and political differences between the Spanish Basque region, Navarre (particularly the north), and the French Basque territories, historically they all patch-worked together to form a culturally Basque space.

After the development of the modern nation state and its centralizing tendencies, then choosing the losing side of several civil wars in the 19th century, two related processes took place: the special rights and autonomy of the Basque Country were greatly eroded and in response, Basque nationalism was born. The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV-EAJ) was founded in 1895 and the brief birth of democracy during the Second Republic from 1931-1936 began to take up the challenging issues of territory and autonomy throughout Spain.

Franco’s dictatorship was a Spanish nationalist, centralizing, diversity crushing forty years that left all the historic nationalities in Spain repressed. Franco shipped in thousands of workers from southern Spain to dilute Basque culture and nationalism (and provide a cheaper labor source that would not organize with the local population…sound familiar?), as he did in Catalonia. These “immigrants” and their descendants form the support base for the socialist party here. Resistance to Franco was fierce in the Basque Country, as was its repression. Euskera, the Basque language, was threatened with extinction and those born during the Franco era often do not speak the language because it was outlawed, as were all non-Spanish tongues.

Guernica after Franco requested that Hitler and Mussollini bomb the town, 1937

ETA was born in 1959 from a student organization dissatisfied with the moderation of the PNV’s opposition to Franco and became a marxist, secular nationalist movement. In 1968 a member of ETA killed a member of the Guardia Civil (Civil Guard) who had stopped him at a routine checkpoint, and so it began. Or, as Robert Jordan would say, “it was a beginning”… The ETA member was then chased down and killed. In retaliation, the first planned ETA assassination was of the head of the secret police in San Sebastián, a sadistic torturer for the Franco regime. The Proceso de Burgos followed when the regime put 16 etarras on trial collectively for the murders, handing down six death penalties and over 500 years of prison.

In the context of resisting a regime that had shipped 10,000 people (gays, communists, intellectuals, artists, remnants of the Republican army, and other dissidents and undesirables) to Nazi death camps and half a million to domestic forced labor camps, many Spaniards mobilized to oppose the sentences. The Catholic Church demanded amnesty, since two of the accused were priests, and eventually clemency was granted after ETA took a German political hostage and brought European pressure to bear on the government.

Public sympathy for ETA was widespread at that time and arguably peaked with its assassination of Franco’s named successor and Prime Minister, Carrero Blanco, in 1973, which some say contributed to the transition to democracy, since Franco had planned for the regime to continue after his death. Both Franco’s regime and members of the first socialist government under democracy supported an illegal “dirty war” to assassinate members of ETA, killing, kidnapping, and torturing dozens of people, including some who had no affiliation with ETA.

As an outsider, it has always seemed to me that Spaniards draw quite a clear line regarding ETA right at the democratic transition, even some victims of ETA violence I’ve spoken to distinguish between the role of the organization before and after, for several reasons. First, most people are sympathetic to the idea of armed resistance to a brutal dictatorship, especially when violence was (mostly) against the regime’s primary arm of domestic repression–the Guardia Civil. But even many nationalists simply did not believe that violence could be justified in a democratic context–and most of the mass public agreed. For many former supporters of ETA, their desire for independence persisted, but it no longer seemed legitimate to opt out of the political process in favor of violence.

A bomb in 1991 at a Guardia Civil barracks that killed 9 people, 5 of whom were children

Second, up until 1974 ETA had usually targeted members of the military, which minimized civil society mobilization around the deaths. ETA’s policy has generally been to take credit for its bombs, to kill soldiers (who were seen as military opponents), and advise officials in advance when using bomb threats in civilian locations to extort money from Basque businesses (the so called impuesto revolucionario) or pressure politicians. This had the impact of allowing sympathizers to tell themselves that ETA did not intend to harm innocents and placed the burden on the government to secure the safety of those in danger.

There can ultimately be no wiggling about responsibility when you light the fuse. In 1974 with a bombing in a crowded restaurant in Madrid, ETA began non-military assassinations. In 1987 ETA gave only 35 minutes notice of a bomb placed in a grocery store in Barcelona and the authorities believed it was a false alarm. 21 people died and over 45 were wounded, triggering a broad political rejection of the group. ETA has murdered Basque nationalists and potential allies in its own community strongholds, in addition to all of its other victims, turning even those who had supported its right to a political voice against it.

Third, police action, often highly coordinated with France, has steadily plucked off ETA leaders. The entire head of the organization was captured in France in 1992 and had to reform. The policy of dispersing prisoners as far from the Basque Country as possible has been problematic because of the hardships it creates for spouses, parents, and children who cannot exercise their legal visitation rights without extreme difficulty. However, this policy has arguably made it hard for the tight-knit organization to continue mobilizing from prison. Highly effective policing has had a dark side, which has been to leave active precisely the members of ETA least capable or interested in committing to a ceasefire–the young, inexperienced, followers of different cells, now without leaders.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, since the transition to democracy Basque political autonomy has steadily increased. Most important policies, social policy in particular, are fully controlled at the regional level. A special set of fiscal rights has allowed the Basque Country and Navarre, since the early eighties, to collect their own taxes and cede back a reduced portion to the Spanish government–the opposite of what is done in all other regions (called the “cupo”). All Basque children by law learn Euskera in school and university entrance exams have a section on Euskera. All public employees must speak Basque (though the government will give you some time to learn and help pay for classes). There are three schooling options for all Basque parents: your child can be educated in Spanish with Basque classes, in bilingual schools, or exclusively in Euskera with just Spanish language classes. In the parks I hear parents overwhelmingly speaking Basque to their children. Public advertisements are almost always in both languages. The world felt topsy turvy to me when I saw campaign ads for the socialists exclusively in Euskera, with no translation, while the Basque separatists even had their campaign materials in both languages!

ETA 2006

The Basque Country and the world have changed around ETA and its political wing, and the loss of support for violence has been drastic, but this weekend was probably the real beginning of a new era. I say probably because, well, the last ceasefire was supposed to be permanent too and the victims I know laugh at the idea that the violence is over. But those who work in mediation say the end has been a long time coming, that ETA has been socially marginalized for years and has been looking for its own way out. Aralar, a small party within the izquierda abertzale, formally opposed the violence of ETA after splitting from Batasuna in 2000. But attempts at negotiation have been problematic, often involving Basque nationalists and the central government but not ETA, or were declared by ETA for various reasons but not maintained. All major actors in Spain consider this the first election to have taken place without the threat of violence, which is deeply significant in and of itself. This was a unilateral declaration of an end to violence by ETA, with no demands made. Paradoxically, the chance of doing something about the location of prisoners will probably be easier now.

ETA’s declaration of an end to its lucha armada accompanied the highest support ever for the parties that share its political goals. But, the hard part is that nothing tangible actually happened, so for victims and their families, these elections were bittersweet. Some undoubtedly feel that their whole society just rewarded a group of criminals for promising to stop committing crimes in the future. Even an independentist I interviewed worried about whether the parties were ready for what they were given on Sunday. After years refusing to participate or being denied the right to participate, the parties affiliated with Batasuna have very little actual experience in politics. Last elections they won the government of San Sebastián. Sunday they won 7 seats in the national congress, enough to have their own bloc. Yet they are ideologically opposed to participating in central government domination of the Basque Country, so their participation will be complicated. In 2013 there will be regional elections that will determine who will govern the Basque Country, which means the richest per capita region in Spain. The “izquierda” part of izquierda abertzale has rarely been tested because, out of government, the parties have never had anything to redistribute. In addition, the PNV has instituted quite a few progressive reforms, despite technically being a center right party, so it will be interesting to see where this new dimension of electoral competition takes the region. In these elections, all the votes for the new Amaiur came from increased participation and losses for the two non-nationalist parties–the PSOE and the PP. The PNV, also “technically” in competition with Amaiur for votes, actually increased its vote share and still came out the most voted party, despite getting fewer seats.

From my first experience in the Basque Country in 2002 walking the Camino de Santiago to my summer working and living here in 2005 and now being here with my family, with old friends and many acquaintances in politics, I can’t help having strong feelings after this weekend. The question is what are they? I’m a little scared that it won’t last, but like most people I’ve talked to here, I’m mostly hopeful about the future and confident that the Basque Country can grow and change to adapt to this new situation, as it has before. Maybe this will create space for people to talk more about politics and to talk more about a more varied set of political questions…we shall certainly see.

For Grace: Dorohoi and Darabani

The Friday we arrived in Bucharest my husband’s Grandmother, whose parents were from Darabani, passed away back in Pittsburgh. Her memorial service is today, and since we can’t be there I am dedicating this post to her and to keeping her family’s history alive for her great-grandchild.

Romania and Regions

The US Embassy in Bucharest helped to put us in touch with the Jewish communities that remained in these small towns, and we are incredibly grateful for their help. After a whirlwind of travel from Bilbao to Madrid to Bucharest and a few days of R and R and local sightseeing with family friends, we headed out on Sunday evening (October 23rd) by plane to Suceava in the north. We were leaving the busy capital behind and heading into Bucovina, where the closest notable town would be Botosoni. The northern border with Ukraine has moved a great deal over the years and Dorohoi and Darabani are almost as far north as you can get and still be in Romania. Our guide was from Maramures and told us that Bucovina is now South Bucovina because the northern part was lost to Ukraine around the time of WWII.

Our guide was waiting for us on Monday morning when we crawled down to breakfast. I can’t imagine anyone I would have more enjoyed spending three days with. He knows more about, well, just about everything, than I could possibly imagine and was able to answer all our questions–which on my end often included how to raise the kinds of sheep we saw and the species of trees growing in the forest. He is a naturalist who loves the old traditions of Romania and he was excellent company. We had a wonderful breakfast of fresh raw vegetables, farmer’s cheese, and omelettes topped with fresh dill. The owner of the hotel was in the kitchen cooking and our guide translated for us.

A surprising number of Romanians speak excellent English, but in the countryside and smaller cities most older folk do not. I say surprising simply because in Spain everyone studies English in school for 8 years or so and still almost no one can communicate in English, something Spaniards are quick to tease themselves about. I certainly don’t expect to go to foreign countries and be able to communicate in English, which is why it was so surprising that in Romania we generally could. The high level of technical and engineering training, generally low levels of inequality (though sharply higher than under communism), and history of excellent primary and secondary education (which, like all public services here has worsened in the past two decades due to a lack of political commitment and corruption) are some of the reasons that major tech firms, call centers, and other relatively high value-added industries have started to invest in Romania (though corruption problems have certainly slowed this trend). But I digress, we were talking about food.

Traditional Wooden House with Decorations

Only half an hour behind schedule, we finished our delicious fare and got in the car and headed out to Dorohoi, 30 km northwest of Suceava. Dorohoi is a small town of about 30,000 people near the border with Ukraine. Many of these towns have switched sides as borders have slipped and slid. The area around Suceava produces timber and has traditionally been the home of fine woodworking and incredible wooden houses with wooden shingles. But as we drove out of town we saw almost no wooden houses. Instead we saw big homes made of concrete with tin or asbestos roofs, many painted bright colors, with balconies and mediterranean style details that seemed out of place with the brisk chilly wind and sloping farmlands with black-skinned beech trees. The soil in this area is acidic and not especially good for farming. Potatoes and cabbage are the main subsistence crops, though over time corn has become common as well.

Traditional Wooden House and Gate

My husband’s paternal grandmother’s parents were probably both from Darabani, her mother certainly. Both of her husband’s parents were from Dorohoi. As we drove by we asked questions and learned more and more about the region that was home to my son’s great, great, grandparents, who fled the pogroms in 1906 and 1907. Until the recent economic troubles, nearly 10 per cent of the Romanian population was living in Southern Europe sending home remittances. The new concrete houses with bright colors were built by immigrants who had returned and designed homes in the style of the places they had been living. Many remained unfinished or had never been painted. The roofs were mostly tin or metal designed to look like the ceramic tile roofs that were common in Western Europe.

Roma tinwork on an unfinished house

The Roma do fine tinwork. They live outside the towns but come through with their wares, shouting to see who needs tinwork, or sometimes going up to knock on a door where the house looks like it needs some help. They get paid when the work is finished because people do not trust them to work if they have been paid in advance. Many of the homes have ornate tinwork along the roofs and gutters. We shared the road with horses pulling long flat beds that looked almost like the bottoms of boats and carried stacks of hay or dry corn plants to be used for bedding for animals.

In Dorohoi we were met by the head of the local Jewish community, Mr. Iancu. There were once 28 synagogues and 7000 Jews (out of a population of 20,000) in Dorohoi. Now there are 30 Jews remaining in a population of 30,000, which is a level of decimation hard to comprehend and a reality that is painful to witness. There were photos along the walls of the community center of Hanukah 1978 when there was still an active Jewish community and a group of visitors had come from Tel Aviv. The building was an old retirement home for Jews and still has a few people living in it. There were grape vines draped all along the interior and reaching into every room. We had black coffee that, as I discovered was common in Romania, was so thick and strong that my latte-loving palette could barely handle it. The two women helping in the center played with our son and he called them “friend” and they responded “amic!” I couldn’t speak with them, since I was chasing our son around while my husband, his father, and our guide were visiting with Mr. Iancu and hearing the history of Dorohoi.

Mr. Iancu with Little Man

Abandoned shop fronts in what was a working class Jewish neighborhood in Dorohoi

Mr. Iancu told us that in 1906 there were some wealthy Jews in Dorohoi who owned mills and factories. The workers were mostly not Jewish, which made it easy for me to see the complex relations of class and ethnicity that must have existed. But there was also a larger community of working class Jews, who lived in neighborhoods segregated from the wealthier Jewish community. Anti-semitic politics took hold and combined with a year of poor crop yields that resulted in riots and starvation in 1907. Many Jews left during this time.

We drove out to the Jewish cemetery of Dorohoi, up on a hill, with old as well as recent graves. We stood out on a sunny slope under the shade of a few trees. The weathered man who kept the keys of the cemetery, trailed by two children, told me in Romanian that this was the site of a “holocaust,” but that was all I understood. I walked up the hill to get a translation. Mr. Iancu explained that in 1940 there had been a Jewish army officer from Dorohoi, Emil Bercovici, whose commander was about to be executed when he stepped in front of him and saved his life. He was being buried with full military honors when a troup of Romanian soldiers passing by heard the rifle fire of the salute. They came to the burial site and slaughtered the 96 people there in mourning for Mr. Bercovici. It was not the first pogrom but it is the one most known in the community.

Jewish Cemetary in Dorohoi

At the site of the massacre of 1940

We drove from Dorohoi to Darabani, about 30 kilometers away and farther to the northeast, near the very northernmost tip of Romania and close to the border with Ukraine. Darabani is a “comuna,” smaller than an urban municipality like Dorohoi. Today it is wealthier than it was because the only people who live there are small land owners who farm their own land. There are now 8000 residents. The old Jewish cemetery was a 15 minute walk off a barely passable dirt road. The sun was warm and Little Man had fallen asleep in my arms. I stayed in the car and napped with him while the men-folk walked out to the cemetery. There were horned cows grazing in the yellow fields. I woke later as farmers with weathered faces and traditional caciula hats drove by with horses pulling a flat bed cart. A few minutes after that the men came back. My husband said this cemetery had been very ancient. The last Jew in Darabani had died several decades before and there were graves that were several centuries old. It had reminded him of the graves we visited in southern Alabama, where my mother’s Irish ancestors were buried in the 1700s.

Jewish Cemetary at Darabani

Gravestones at Darabani

Gravestone at Darabani

On the drive back to Dorohoi for lunch we passed cornfields with rows of dried sunflowers bordering them. Our guide explained that the elderly woman whose farmland housed the Darabani cemetery had told him they had tried to use sunflowers for bees, but they could not reach inside the flowers and became agitated and disoriented, so some farmers learned to use them to keep pests away from the corn. I saw groves of trees that had long thin leaves and blew silver in the wind. Many looked to have been recently cut back, having sent out long new shoots of foliage. Our guide said they were acacia trees, prized for the honey produced by bees that feed on them and also for firewood, since they were fast growing and could be trimmed periodically for wood. In the late winter people burn the fields to get rid of the winter plant refuse and prepare for spring. They also keep one pig that is slaughtered at home at the beginning of December, for Christmas, and which was eaten over the course of the winter months.

Bee houses at the Darabani Cemetery

We ate lunch at a restaurant back in Dorohoi. We had ciorba radauteana, a soup with sour cream, garlic, chicken, and peppers that was first made in the city of Radauti that we visited later. We also had Ciorba de perisoare, a meatball soup. We all shared a roast chicken (pui la rotisor) with mamaliga and mujdei, a sharp and delicious raw garlic sauce.

It was a two hour drive from Dorohoi to Gura Humorolui, the town in Bucovina where we would begin the next stage in our journey. We were stopped on the way for speeding, which was an interesting experience. Our guide declared that it was “just like what the communists used to do” to wait at a place that was an easy trap just so you could make people pay tickets. I thought to myself that it was sort of like all governments, remembering quite a few such speed traps at home.

The “buc” in Bucovina means “beech” because of all the beech forests. The landscape was beautiful and as we gazed out the window our guide told us a story. He said that after God created the Earth, God took a bag of favors and walked the land to distribute the favors to different peoples. But over Romania the bag fell and all the favors spilled out–oil, gas, forests, pastures, lakes, and rivers. God said “oh no, this will not do! Now things will not be fair and there will be nothing left for the rest.” God thought for a while and then said “I know what I will do. I will curse the people who live in this land so they will never enjoy all that they have.” And so it was done.

Bucovina Landscape

We stayed the night at a lovely bed and breakfast called Hilde’s that my husband had picked out. It has an apple orchard and makes organic cheeses and juice. The apartment was wonderful and we had a light dinner in the restaurant, along with tall .51 liter glasses of Urso, a popular Romanian beer. We had chicken, salad with trout with bright gold skin, beef goulash soup, and a salad of shredded raw carrot, apples, celery, golden raisins, and mayonnaise. Little Man loved my salad and shoveled big piles of it into his mouth. We went to bed early after he tried to destroy everything in the room and broke a glass on the tile floor.

Despite the challenges of traveling with a 19-month old, I wouldn’t trade anything for this opportunity for him to visit the homeland of some of his ancestors, and to do it in the company of his father and grandfather. On Tuesday, the adventure continued…

Romania: First Days

We have been in Romania for a week now, but there has been no time to do more than take notes along the way. My husband’s father is descended from Romanian Jews who fled the pogroms at the beginning of the 20th century. We knew there would likely be no one living who remembered them, but my father in law came to visit us in Bilbao and then we all traveled to Romania together to visit the homeland of Little Man’s great great great paternal grandparents. It has been a moving and beautiful experience and I’m going to try to chronicle the journey as best I can.

We spent 3 days in Bucharest with family friends and then struck out by plane to Suceava in the north, where we met up with our guide and spent another 3 days traveling Moldavia and Transylvania by car. We are now in Brasov, where we will spend another 3 days before heading back to Bucharest and then to Bilbao. On Friday evening (October 21st) I was thinking about my father–the next day would be the two year anniversary of his death after fighting cancer for three decades. That evening we got a call from home that our last remaining grandparent, the grandmother whose parents were from Darabani, had passed away back in Pittsburgh. The loss has made the trip even more poignant.

I have discovered that I can actually understand quite a bit of Romanian. We had gone for a walk around Bucharest and an older man stopped us on the street and asked where the bus station was. Our friend apologized in English and said we didn’t understand, and I said “oh, he wants to know where the bus station is” and they all looked at me like I was crazy. Romania was originally inhabited by Thracian tribes, who cohabited with the Romans after being conquered during the 1st century AD, and it is believed that the Romanian language came from the mix of these groups. The language is a vestige of the collapse of the Roman empire, which fell apart from the inside out, so the last places where versions of Latin were spoken were the far east and far west of the empire–Portugal and Romania. I knew Romanian was a romance language because in Spain people believe this to be the reason so many Romanians have chosen to immigrate there, but it never occurred to me that I might actually understand some.

Sheep and Cow Cheeses and Cured Meats at the Market in Bucharest

Our second morning in Bucharest (Bucaresti) we took a walk to the local farmer’s market. An agricultural school held this organic market every weekend, but as we have learned as we travel around the country, “organic” is what the poor here (as in most places) have always done. They cannot afford pesticides and the tradition of subsistence farming is strong, particularly in the north. The communists had tried to destroy small independent farming by forcing collectivization in the countryside. They even tried to kill all the horses, since these animals pulled the logs from the forest for wood, pulled the plows, and pulled the wagons to transport hay and timber. But the horses came back quickly and the old ways returned as well. Perhaps the most damaging legacy of forced collectivization in the countryside has been a visceral rejection of cooperative farming. Small holders cling to their independence, even when member-run, democratic small cooperatives might protect them from natural disasters and allow them to pool resources for basic equipment. But the memory of “voluntarism” and “cooperation” as code words for forced labor and collectivization are only two decades past. As in many other areas, the communists succeeded in destroying the very communal instincts that lay at the base of their ideology.

Jams and Jellies

Mamaliga on a stick

At the market there were all kinds of sweet breads and potato breads and sausages, pork, cured meats, nuts, sweets, and fresh juices. It is the end of the grape season so there was “must”, which I assumed was like the Spanish “mosto,” or non-alcoholic grape wine. My father in law looked for the foods he remembered from his childhood. We saw mamaliga–polenta–being cooked on sticks with cheese in open flames. Little man loved it hot and doughy off the stick. Then we had some potato bread with caraway seeds, we bought a huge round loaf that must weight 5 pounds. Then we bought another traditional potato bread and the baker ushered us through a little doorway in the back of his stall, covered in a hand woven blanket, and showed us where they baked the bread behind the stall. Domed cast iron ovens were propped open with sticks so that kindling and dried reeds and corn husks could be shoved inside, then the dough was pressed out, almost like pizza dough but thicker, on a wooden pallet and smeared with tomato, with the orthodox cross pressed in. The pallet was pushed under the propped up dome oven and then the whole thing was let down to rest on the ground and bake beneath the dome. We saw a fresh one pulled out and bought one to take home, which we ate half of before we got partway down the street.

Making potato bread

Bucharest is the capital and by far the largest city in Romania with about 2 million people. The country as a whole has about 22 million, though it is estimated that in the past decade 10% of the population has immigrated to Southern Europe to work. This has produced a great deal of new construction paid for with remittances (which all ground to a halt in 2009). It also produced a heartbreaking rash of child suicides, when children were left to be raised by grandparents while their parents worked in Spain or Italy. The sex trafficking of young girls, especially Roma, to Western Europe has also taken its toll. The city of Bucharest is just now renovating the old historic city center (Lipscani), which required the displacement of the Roma slums that had grown up there. We will spend a day in Bucharest before going back to Spain and we’ll dedicate a post to the Holocaust Memorial, the Palace of Parliament (formerly the People’s Palace under the communists, which is ironic since Ceausescu’s dictatorship demolished a sixth of the city, razing entire neighborhoods to build the monstrosity), and other major sites we visited. In the early 1900s Bucharest was an important European capital, known as the Paris of the East, though like most other major capitals at some point or another, the place has fallen on hard times. With a small child, what I was most interested in was its status as the place with the highest pedestrian death rate in Romania.

On Sunday evening our friends took us to the airport. When we went to check in, as with every single other flight we’ve ever tried to take with Little Man, we were told that he had not in fact been added to the ticket and we had to add him. Whether we have talked with agents in person on the phone or added him online, this has happened on every single international flight we have taken with our son, which is an unfortunately large number. We went  to the ticket desk where, after making us wait a long time, I heard them tell my husband that we had to buy our son a ticket of his own. Papa Bear said “a full price ticket?” and I heard the lady respond saucily and my husband and his father turned around and rolled their eyes.

She had said “You have to pay!” “How much?” “Two euro.” So we spent half an hour paying two euro so Little Man would be able to sit in our laps for a 50 minute flight to Suceava. Only when we got through security it turned out that the flight was delayed because of fog in Suceava. Then it was not delayed, it was rerouted to Iasi (pronounced Yahsh), where they would put us on a bus to Suceava. The people near us said “don’t worry, it’s two hours tops.” I almost cried. It was 9:30 when we boarded the plane, 9:35 when the flight attendant forced me to wake my son up to buckle him into the EU approved seat belts that attach to the adult seat belt by a loop (I always envision the plane upside down in the water and my baby dangling by his waist from the loop on my seat belt), and it was 10:30 when we arrived in Iasi. The airport was tiny and we quickly got our luggage and were loaded on the bus, then had to wait 45 minutes while one last person’s bag arrived.

There was something about the windshield being cracked in three places, with giant rock craters, that made me nervous. I should not have been surprised that the driver answered his cell phone while trying to drive the manual transmission bus around winding curves at night. He steered with his elbow while he changed gears.  The heat climbed steadily from a comfortable 13 degrees to an abysmal 22. Kiddo slept on my lap the whole way. I looked out the window, watching dark forest with brightly changing autumn leaves swish by in the headlights of the bus. We arrived at 1am where the car from the hotel, thankfully, was waiting. The hotel was a beautifully restored old building with a garden out back. When we arrived kiddo had been thoroughly awoken and had absolutely no interest in sleeping. It was 2:30 before we were able to sleep and I felt I had barely closed my eyes when we had to crawl out of bed again the next morning. But the next day we went down to a delicious country breakfast and found our guide waiting for us…

Food, Glorious Food

today's birthday lunch with empanadas de bonito and morcilla from the local bakery

Three weeks hardly seems enough time to write about food, but I fear if I wait any longer this post will be a mile long. In the Basque Country, as in much of Spain, food is still right. By right I mean people spend time preparing it, they buy fresh local ingredients at local markets, and they have not forgotten how to make the food of their grandmothers. There is so much to say about food here that I don’t even know where to start.

Before I go off, though, I have to be fair. Junk food is all the rage, obesity has skyrocketed, and working mothers are still expected to produce a three hour multi course meal at home in the middle of the day. But unlike the US, where a whole generation of real food growers and makers was lost to the industrial wave, in Spain the interest in real food, local, and organic has picked up while young people still remember growing up in their grandparents’ kitchens–and those were farmers and shepherds and miners who really knew how to cook!

We have slipped effortlessly into local eating habits and it’s fascinating to watch Little Man pick these up. Our good friends laughed when we had them over for lunch last weekend and had made a chickpea, root vegetable, and chorizo stew with potatoes and served it over fresh spinach and day-old bread. They were expecting hamburgers.

chorizo, root vegetable stew

We make a big healthy meal at midday (2-3pm) and then a light dinner of simple pan rustica dipped in olive oil, sheep’s milk cheese or manchego, perhaps a little jamón or fried almendras (or not), some rioja red wine. Boo won’t eat bread without “oil” and he sucks it off and often forgets to eat the bread, which is fine by me. He appears to be a natural at untando (using something bland to dip or wipe tasty morsels of soup or stew…so you don’t miss the last drop), something he never did at home. He now regularly sticks his crackers or crusty bread into his cup of smoothie or water or lentil soup or whatever and then puts it in his mouth. He puts jamón or sheep’s milk cheese on crackers and eats it all together in little bocatas. The combinations have sometimes been unfortunate. Lately he’s taken to untando his jamón in his yogurt and fruit smoothies.

Better than eating, for both of us, is the making. The Merkatua Ribera is the largest covered market in Europe. It is currently undergoing renovations so is only half full, but that’s plenty for us. Fresh food is unbelievably cheap. Though things have gotten more expensive with the euro, making your own food is shockingly affordable, especially given the quality of the meats, fishes, poultry, and vegetables. Particularly after Brazil, where good food ingredients were so expensive we almost lost our minds, we are in food heaven.

I was curious to see what we would find in the way of organic and “bio” food here (as it’s called in Spanish), since it was still not much established when I lived in Spain six years ago. Bilbao is peppered with organic shops, but because the Basque Country has not been cutting edge in producing natural foods, a lot of the organic products are from Navarra. I’m still digging into why the region next door is so much farther along.

salmon stew with fresh spinach

We’ve made delicious salmon stew with tomato, garlic, onion, and the ubiquitous piquillo–sweet red peppers. We’ve had steak, hand cut for us at the market. Tomorrow I think we’ll make chicken, so far we’ve been enjoying the good fish and embutidos (anything stuffed in pig intestines, generally pork).

I made morcilla de Burgos the other day, and of course all these things bring back incredible memories of the formative times I spent here over the past 10 years. The very first time I came here at the age of 19 I spent my first three days in a tiny Catalan village in the Pyrinees mountains, in the home town of some friends. I had little experience with real food and remember not knowing a whole roast artichoke when I saw one. My second day I discovered that it would become a favorite pastime for my friends to give me things to eat that they knew I’d never recognize or have tried before and watch my face. While this brings back unfortunate memories of my sister’s colleagues in Okinawa giving me natto maki without telling me what it was and grinning while they watched me choke it down, this food was all delicious. I had snails for the first time and had a blast prying them out of their shells with a tooth pick. Honestly, there’s not much that isn’t delicious salted and fried in olive oil with lots of love.

That same meal I had morcilla for the first time. I’ve since learned that there are a number of kinds of morcilla (blood sausage) and that I really don’t like most of them. But morcilla de Burgos is made with rice and you slice it in fat medallions and fry it in olive oil. This is perhaps one of the tastiest things I’ve ever eaten. Though, given that I was a year out from having been a vegetarian for a decade, I can’t say I was pleased when they finally told me what I’d been devouring. As has happened constantly, these wonderful sharp memories–from when you are young and having true first experiences, one after another–come back with every smell and every bite. So I happily made morcilla de Burgos for my honeys, this time with quinoa and raisins.

morcilla with quinoa and raisins

At the Merkatua Ribera, I asked a vegetable vendor about sweet potatoes because I hadn’t seen any. He looked at me like I was crazy and said “I’ve never had those.” I realized then that, despite my current adherence to the belief that white potatoes have nothing of value in them and my tendency to replace them almost always with sweet potatoes, I could not remember ever having eaten sweet potato in Spain. So I happily sighed and bought something local, something that grows here and that people always have. Potatoes, leeks, onions, garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. I buy wine and fresh spinach, as well as whatever else looks fresh, at an organic grocer in the casco viejo.  Another organic grocer, owned by a friend of a friend, provides dry beans, grains, lettuce, and carrot juice for stinky (I love how he demands juice and I can just pour him a big cup of carrot juice with no sugar and he’s happy as a bug in a rug). We get bananas (always from the Canary Islands, they are sweeter and smaller than those from Central America, though probably a stretch to consider it local just because it’s “Spain,” given that they are in Africa).

While coffee is everywhere here, I’ve never liked it much. I always thought there was something wrong with me because Spaniards think Americans know nothing about making good coffee and I thought their coffee was usually pretty crappy, even though it’s always espresso. We’ve done some poking around and discovered a few things. First, a lot of people we know think that coffee in southern Spain is bad, which might be why I felt that way after living a year in Sevilla. Second, it appears that Spain has just never been very good at negotiating for choice beans with Latin American producers, so has often ended up with the bottom of the barrel. After striking out a number of times and ending up spending a fortune for some Illy at the Corte Inglés, we were tipped off to a local producer, Baqué, that makes a knock off brand for the Eroski grocery store chain and also sells its own. Both are quite good. Though, we are still getting my father in law to bring us a few pounds of Counter Culture roasted San Ramón Nicaragua organic beans when he comes to visit.

I am now realizing that we will certainly need another post about food, probably restaurants. Eating out here is actually expensive, in large part because meals are multi-course, always include wine, and are made out of, well, real food. It just surprises me how cheap ingredients are and how expensive good restaurants are. Though, I think this might not be uncommon in Europe, where small farming is protected and people still think that basic food should be cheap and accessible. We haven’t done it much, but Papa Bear is taking me out for my birthday this weekend somewhere fancy while friends watch the baby, so soon I’ll have a little more to say.

For now, I’m just going to bed with a full, happy tummy.

step one of a stir fry with quinoa, veggies, and txistorra de navarra

step two