The Bridges of Long Island

I flew into JFK last Sunday after many years. With the new automation at these airports, one passes through immigration much faster. I was out in no time and on the road to Long Island.

Driving from JFK to Long Island through its many parkways, the one thing I have always noticed is a succession of very low bridges. An article in New York Times written almost ten years ago details some of the hilarious and horrendous road accidents that these lead to.

I went back to that article and found the intriguing statement "Sometimes, this was by design, as in the case of some parkways on Long Island, where bridges were built too low for buses to pass under." Following this up, I came to Robert Moses, and the allegation that he built these bridges low deliberately to exclude the low-income black households living in Queens from accessing the beaches of Long Island. The reasoning given is that poorer people did not usually own cars, and would have to make a trip like this by bus. By keeping clearances under the bridges which are sometimes half of the standard, Moses is said to have planned to exclude buses from entering these areas.

The 40 year old Pulitzer Prize winning book by Robert Caro about Robert Moses called "The Power Broker" which brought together evidence that there was systematic racism in the city services designed by Moses has now become contentious. The low bridges of Long Island however, continue to be traps for trucks.

Little hotels

Work brought me to Long Island, where towns spread out along parkways and roads. Hotels are set back from the roads, so that the view out of the front-facing rooms are of a parking lot and a road. The view out of a back-facing room is marginally better: a parking lot and a little patch of woods separate you from another road. The only views in Long Island are of the sea and beaches. Trying to get a room with that kind of view would put me quite far from work. Jet-lag changes your priorities. I prefer to wake a little late, and take the shortest time to get in.

There are other things that one gets to see here. Ducks flying overhead, their honking a joy to hear. I spotted a trio of cormorants in the evening, returning from a day out fishing. I spotted a female Northern Cardinal yesterday, mistaking it for a sparrow, until I saw the red around its head and shoulder. It is summer now, and walking at night you can hear cicadas bowing and scraping. The view out of the window is only a small part of living on the Island.

Permanent Book Fair of Madrid

On a hot afternoon The Family and I found ourselves near the Atocha train station in Madrid and thought we would go and sit in the Buen Retiro park. The road took us past a line of wooden stalls with books. We walked along slowly, looking at the titles. Most of them were in Spanish, as we’d expected, but there were a few French, English and German titles as well. The quiet street with these charming wooden stalls, a few people browsing, all reminded me of a vanished time when in Paris along the Seine you could actually browse for used books. Like the stalls of Paris, these also stock a few old postcards and period posters. However, the focus is on books.

I found later that the stalls have been here since 1925, apparently through the Civil War. At the end of the street was a statue of Pio Baroja, the famous Spanish novelist of the early 20th century, who was apparently a great influence on Ernest Hemingway.

We walked slowly up the slope, crossed the road and entered the park. The heat was oppressive. We sat in the shade of the trees for a while, and realized why the siesta is still a good idea in Spain. Instead of walking further into the park, we left and took a taxi to our hotel for a real siesta.

Spanish pottery

I saw everyday pottery from before the modern era in various parts of Spain. In a village museum in Andalucia I saw the plate shown in the featured photo. The decoration looked very modern. When I looked at the date, it turned out to be from the early 20th century. I liked the red colour of the fired clay, which you see in the rim. The thin white glaze and the faded green decoration looked very nice too.

Andalucian pottery, early 20th century Andalucian pottery, early 17th century

In the same place, I saw the pieces which you see above in the photo on the left. These pieces are also Andalucian and come from the early 20th century. On the right, above, is a detail from a painting by Murillo. If it shows contemporary pottery, then it is Andalucian, and from the early 17th century. Three hundred years has changed this pottery a little. The shapes are very similar. The newer pottery has somewhat of a brighter glaze.Castillian pottery, early 19th century This could be because the firing kilns are hotter, and therefore allow different glazing.

Finally, I leave you with photos of pottery I saw in Toledo, said to be from El Greco’s time. If this is an example of mid-16th century Castillian pottery, then it is remarkably similar in colour and design to tiles from other parts of Spain and Portugal of that time. Interestingly, even now one finds in southern France, pottery with similar decoration.

Dancing in the streets

During our trip through Andalucia we expected to see a lot of dance. What we didn’t expect was a reminder of Shanghai, and its dances on the streets. In contrast to the spontaneity of Shanghai, Granada was more organized.

We arrived in Granada, checked into our room. The Family was excited. "Let’s go out", she said, without giving me a chance to look at the map on my phone. We wandered out, and the nearest square had this wonderful dance. I have two left feet, so I was content to stand on the sidelines and shoot the video you can see here. Later we realized that the square we were on, Plaza del Carmen, with that wonderful large mosaic in the center, is in front of the city council hall.

We fell in love with Granada right there.

Bird’s Net

Passing through Mumbai airport last week I saw, for the first time, crows inside the huge building. I have seen pigeons inside buildings before, but this was the first time I saw crows. An airport terminal is a closed structure, so it is somewhat strange to see birds inside. One wonders how they get in.

I was reminded of the ingenious Spanish bird’s net: a large net strategically placed to exclude birds. Spanish buildings are open to the air, as Indian buildings are, and for the same reason. Clever circulation of air can cool buildings. A typical Spanish style is a structure built around one or more open courtyards. I noticed that there were seldom any birds inside these buildings. The reason is a net stretched right across the opening at the level of the roof. The mesh is small enough to exclude even the notorious Spanish sparrows!

Pleasant times in Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor today is a fun place: a large enclosed pedestrian square lined with cafes, restaurants and shops. We strolled through the surrounding arcades, window shopping, before we decided to eat at one of the restaurants around the plaza. The plaza was alive with people in the warm summer evening, as you can see in the video below. There was nothing to remind us of the public executions, beatifications, bullfights, or the burning of heretics by the Inquisition.

If you read the history of the plaza, you see an emperor’s desire to remake the city into a grand capital by removing what must have been a congested marketplace at the crossing of the roads to Atocha and Toledo. Juan de Herrera drew up the plans under Philip II but construction started only in 1617, during the reign of his son. This is why the equestrian statue of Philip III stands in the middle of the square, as it has, intermittently, over the last couple of centuries. The present look of the square dates from after the fires of 1790s, and is due to the appropriately named Juan de Villanueva. I did not take photos of the frescoes made in 1992 on the northern facade to celebrate Madrid’s year as Eucrope’s cultural capital.

The Boqueria market

When you walk down Barcelona’s La Rambla, you feel that it could not have changed much through its history. Your feeling may be correct. As far back as 1217 CE, there was apparently a pig market near a gate which stood where Miro’s mosaic can be seen at Pla de l’Os. This was then part of a larger market, which now seems to have taken over the whole of La Rambla. But if you want to see a real food market, you have to duck into the Boqueria market, whose entrance is on this road. Among the things we didn’t know about it was that you can find Catalonia’s oldest nougat here. The sample we had did not taste 242 years old!

The Boqueria market

The meat stalls stand at the entrance to the market. The variety of hams hanging there left me stunned. Most of the sales people seemed too busy to have a chat about the differences between the meats, even if we had a shared language. The pig market was moved here in 1840 after a convent was removed. As you can see in the photo above, the current structure is very modern, but atop it stands a high structure of iron struts which is clearly older. At the edge of the photo you can see the even older stone pillars, which mark out a covered gallery running around the market. This older structure houses lots of restaurants and tapas bars.

Vegetables at the Boqueria market

We moved into the crowded fresh produce section of the market. Although I saw nothing which I have not seen before, all the produce looked extremely fresh. The chilis that you see in the photo above are wonderful when they are grilled. We had a plateful of that much later in the evening. Some of the fruit stalls have fresh juices available. It was still extremely warm and the fluids looked welcoming. We took our time selecting the juices we wanted to drink. Fresh pressed orange juices were our breakfast staple in Spain, but here there was a large variety: from tropical fruits like guavas to European summer berries.

Relaxing at the Boqueria market

We moved on, and found the usual selection of cheese. Stopping there would have been sad, not just because I don’t know much about Spanish cheeses, but also because we did not have the leisure to select a few of them to taste over days. I wish we had the time to go back and walk through the market a few more times at leisure, sampling a larger variety of tastes. It would have helped us enjoy what the city calls one of the world’s largest markets if we had access to a kitchen while in Barcelona.

The Bear of Madrid

One of the first things we read about Madrid in our guidebook was that there was a statue of a bear in Puerta del Sol. When I looked at the map of Madrid, I knew I would cross this vast square multiple times. So we never looked for the statue, we just came across it. It is hard to miss, with the number of tourists standing around taking selfies. We had to stand in a queue to take our selfie.

Why a bear? The origins of this symbol are as obscure as the name of the city. All that we know today is that as early as 1212 CE, the soldiers of Madrid fought under a banner which showed a bear with the symbol of the constellation of the big dipper on it. Ten years later, a strawberry tree had been added to the coat of arms of Madrid, to assert the city’s ownership of forests around it.

Since I’d only seen wild strawberries growing on the ground before, it was a personal discovery that strawberries grow on trees, which may be too high for children to reach. It was also a bit of a stretch of the mind to imagine that strawberries grew around Madrid. The scorching heat that dogged our days in Madrid must then give way to cooler winters.

The statue in Puerta del Sol was unveiled as late as in 1967. The bronze and stone work is by the Spanish sculptor Antonio Navarro Santafe, who specialized in animal figures, and whose fame seems to rest mainly on two public sculptures of bears he made. Both can be seen in Madrid, Oso y El Madrono (Bear and Strawberry Tree) in Puerta del Sol, the other in the Parque de Berlin. It seems that he modelled both after a bear caught near Madrid and imprisoned in the zoo in the park of El Retiro in Madrid. I also found it interesting that Navarro Santafe renders the foliage with much less detail than the bear. On the other hand, my photos of real bears do not show the rippling muscles that this one has.

As you can see in the featured photo, Madrilenos never stop working on the statue. Apparently it was moved around inside the Puerta del Sol while it was being remodelled a few years ago. I took the photo as the square was being spruced up during the Madrid Pride events of 2017. In its unsmiling way, Madrid is quite a welcoming city.

Cervantes and the Spanish State

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the author of Don Quixote, is widely believed to be the greatest of Spanish writers. It is not hard to conflate him with Spain, since his statue stands outside the Chamber of Deputies, the powerful lower house of the Spanish parliament.

I’d passed this statue a few times on my way to various museums and the Atocha station of Madrid, and said to myself that I would come back to take a photo. When I did I was very happy to see an irreverent line of half-empty glasses of orange juice lined up on the pedestal (look carefully at the featured photo). I was happy for two reasons, the first is that it allows me to digress a little on the wonderful fresh squeezed orange juice that you get in every bar and cafe. My travels in Spain were made so much more delightful by this lovely fresh and tart drink. The second is that this irreverence seems to be part and parcel of the Spain that I saw and liked.

If you look carefully at the photo you will also see the lone guard with a machine gun standing at the top of the stairs of the Chamber of Deputies. My impression of the basic openness of Europe was formed when I bumped, quite literally, into heads of state, not once but twice. In many parts of the world the government and the governed are never so close, even if the state calls itself a democracy. Perhaps this has changed now, but a single armed guard in front of a country’s parliament seems to say that the change is not too deep, yet.

In the time of Cervantes the Spanish state was different: much concerned with thought crime. The Spanish Inquisition was founded even before the territorial consolidation of 1492. A large part of Cervantes’ life was spent as a soldier in the frontiers of a war that the world seems to be fighting again. But he is remembered now as the creator of that acme of idealism: Don Quixote. Such contradictions mirror Spain’s fractured attitudes to its citizens and the world outside the EU. Cervantes is an appropriate symbol to stand outside the chamber of political power.