Wednesday, March 23, 2011

la Corrida

Hey folks. Instead of me complaining/praising/ignoring Mississippi life, I have, for only the second time in the history of this blog . . . . a guest post!!!

That's right. Today I am featuring none other than my own flesh and blood, my kith and kin, my only brother and world traveler extraordinaire, Jim. He's in Spain for the semester, and every week or so we get emails from him full of juicy cultural details, stories, and spectacles. His last writing was on attending a Spanish bullfight, and he's agreed to share it with the world. Enjoy!

la Corrida

Yesterday (Sunday) I finally made it to my first bullfight, called a corrida in Spanish. Honestly I hadn't known what to expect. History? Cruelty? Art? Brutality? Turns out it was every one of those, with a lot more mixed in.
First I suppose I should explain how bullfights work. Every corrida consists of 6 different rounds - 3 toreros (bullfighters) each fight 2 bulls. The bulls are usually around 1100 pounds. Within each round are 3 stages, called tercios. First the bull is fought by the picadores, who are men on horseback with lances. They attack the bull with their lance, striking it in the back to weaken it somewhat. Their lance points are limited to a certain length to prevent any real damage to the bull except for blood loss. The picadors also provide an opportunity for the torero (the matador) to gauge the bull's strength, and see if he has any tendencies to hook to a certain side. The fights between the picadors and the bulls are really intense - the bulls are trying their best to gore the horse and the rider. There were a couple bulls that got low and used leverage, and almost flipped the whole horse. The horses are protected by armor, as are the legs of the picador. They blindfold the horses to keep them calm, but I still couldn't believe how tranquil they were while an enraged bull was trying to flip them over. I never heard them make a sound, and afterward they almost seemed bored.

Next come the banderilleros - I'm not sure if any person in the ring is braver than another, because everything is dangerous, but these guys are pretty gutsy. Their job is to place banderillas in the back of the bull - basically 3 foot sticks with points that keep them stuck in to weaken the bull some more. The way they do this is to face off with the bull from across the ring with a banderilla in each hand, arms spread out wide, and then both charge toward each other full speed. The Banderillero runs toward one side a bit while he's charging, and at the last minute jumps to one side and drives the banderillas into the bull. A couple of times the banderilleros bailed at the last minute and jumped out of the way of the charging bull, inciting boos and jeers from the crowd. I wondered how many of the people booing would go into the ring and do what those guys do....

Finally, the matador enters the ring alone with his sword and his cape and begins the faena, or the dance with the bull. It was absolutely incredible to see this in person. The bull was at times brushing the matadors as he passed them. There are countless techniques and styles to this, which is part of the deep, fascinating world of bullfighting. If the matador is doing well, the crowd shouts out "Olé!" after every pass and goes crazy as he walks away to begin the next series. Finally, the faena comes to a close when the matador kills the bull with his sword. The matador lines up about 10 feet in front of the bull with his sword pointed straight out. He draws the bull to charge using his cape and lunges forward at almost the same instant, ideally burying the sword up to the hilt between the shoulder blades of the bull as it passes by him. If it's not delivered well, the sword won't go in all the way and the matador has to pick it up and face the bull for another try. During a couple of rounds the matadors had to try 3 or 4 times - they were relatively inexperienced matadors. If the blow is delivered well, the bull can fall almost immediately. Other times it'll take a few minutes of using the cape to make the bull charge.

After the bull is dead, the sword is pulled out (risky at times - think Monty Python's quote "he's not quite dead!") and a team of 3 mules pulls the dead bull out of the ring really fast. There's two guys driving the mules and another one popping a huge whip on the ground yelling, and the mules are absolutely hauling. After the last bull was killed I was leaving through the tunnel under the stadium with all the other spectators when the team of mules came flying past right past us, going out of the stadium with the bull and leaving a trail of blood behind them that you had to step over.

So that's a how the corrida actually works. My first one was at the bullring of Madrid - built in 1929, it's not as old as some others (the one in Sevilla was first used in 1785), but it's regarded as one of the best and most important in the world. It was a fantastic day - warm weather, but not too hot and without a cloud in the sky. I took the 8am train to Madrid to hang out in the city for most of the day, as the corrida started at 5pm. The atmosphere outside the stadium before the match was awesome - all the old aficionados were there hanging out for hours before it started. There's tons of old men that go to every single corrida, and they were all arguing and talking about bullfighting constantly.

The corrida began with the parade to salute the president of the bullring. Two marshals of the stadium - older men, wearing 18th century clothes and mounted on horseback - led out the three matadors, each of whom was followed by his entourage of 3 banderilleros on foot and his 2 picadors mounted on their horses. They marched to the center of the arena as the band played the traditional entrance song of the Madrid bullring. It was pretty awesome - it really gives you chills. The stadium was only about half-filled (the toreros weren't really famous - still pretty young) but there was so much energy it felt like it was full. I sat on the first row, right over the entrance to the tunnel that the bulls run out of. I had the great fortune to sit next to a really nice old guy who goes to every single bullfight. He explained everything that happened, and I learned a ton. It was also great to hear his commentary on the bulls, the matadors, the crowd, and everything else in between. A particularly fierce bull entered the ring, rushing past mere feet below us, and he studied it intently, saying, "See! This is a bull's bull!" Later the same bull sent a banderillero diving over the wall, taking a big chunk out of the wood where the guy had been not even a second before. The old man exclaimed, "$#&@! That's a lot of bull! That's what I was talking about!"

The craziest part of the day was during the second fight, when the matador from Madrid was about to strike his death blow. He lunged towards the bull, but it must have hooked left or right, because it caught him right in his stomach and he was flung through the air like a rag doll, landing about fifteen feet in front of the bull. He rolled over, and I immediately saw a huge, dark red stain all over his stomach. The whole crowd made a collective gasp. It looked like his stomach had been skewered right through. He started trying to crawl away, but the bull rushed him, pummeling him further. The bullfighting version of rodeo clowns rushed in to distract the bull, finally bringing it over to a far corner to keep it distracted. Miraculously, the matador stood up and limped to the center of the ring, where his banderilleros were waiting to help him. He stood doubled over for a minute, and then suddenly stood up straight. Everyone realized that the blood all over his stomach was actually from the bull - he had somehow escaped the horns. I still have no idea how. The matador slowly walked over and picked up his sword and his cape, and motioned for the banderilleros to leave the ring. The crowd went crazy. Everyone stood up cheering for him for a minute or so as he caught his breath, then the guys distracting the bull in the corner hopped over the fence and he was alone with the bull once again. He faced it down again, and his next strike drove the sword home. Afterwards everyone went nuts. He walked out of the ring into the infirmary, and no one knew if he'd fight again. Sure enough, he came back out for the last match, blood still covering his stomach, and did very well considering the beating he took. It was an impressive performance to even finish the fight, because that bull absolutely nailed him. It really drove home that it's not a sport or a show - it's a life or death thing for them.

So that was my introduction to bullfighting, and I'm afraid I'm hooked. It was absolutely fascinating, probably one of my best experiences here so far. I can't say how I justify watching it though - it was indeed very cruel, and it goes against what I believe about not making animals suffer unnecessarily. However, when I saw it I immediately understood why they call it art. It portrays so much about the culture of Spain and about life and death that it's astounding. But it's definitely not for everyone - when's the last time you went to a sporting event or performance and had to step over a blood trail on your way out? In spite of my doubts about it - which I'm sure will always stay with me - I can't wait to see my next corrida and continue learning about this incredibly unique national pastime.

Monday, March 14, 2011

a thousand stars

Today, I have to share with you one of my favorite artists. I discovered him through a children's book. Yes, that's right. Children's books have some of the crappiest art out there, but they also have some of the loveliest, imaginative, creative, real art.

So I discovered today's artist in The Jesus Storybook Bible, by Sally Lloyd-Jones. Yes, it is a children's Bible. Yes, I may like it more than my actual Bible (except for the Psalms). And you know it's gonna be good because the writer and illustrator are BOTH British. [Note: if you go to the Storybook website, check out the video - it's narrated by David Suchet. Whoa, I thought. Not THAT David Suchet? But it is! The Hercule Poirot, British actor David Suchet, and I'm probably the only one who is nerdy enough to watch Agatha Christie movies so I have to tell you how awesome it is that David frickin Suchet is reading the Jesus Storybook Bible! Ahem. Back to our regularly scheduled program.]

Anyway. Back to the artist. Jago is his name, and he makes a living illustrating children's books. How wonderful is that. The first thing I noticed about his art on the Storybook's pages is the beautiful use of texture and layering. His creations are simultaneously earthy and luminous, whimsical and poignant. I don't know how. Apparently his work is all digitally done, and it is absolutely. gorgeous. absolutely.

What's even better - I discovered that you can buy his work at deviantART, and also at photobox, if you are so inclined (I am).

Unfortunately, due to both copyright laws and my own technical ineptitude, I can't share any of his lovely stuff directly with you on this blog. So, as the Reading Rainbow guy would say (I love you LeVar!) - don't take my word for it. Find out for yourself!

P.S. Okay, now you can expect a post in homage to LeVar Burton. I was seriously in love with that man. Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Me and Emily Bronte: the difference

If you have hang around this English nerd girl for long enough, sooner or later you will hear me tell a story about Emily Bronte (the Wuthering Heights girl. Yeah, that one). Emily, see, was in charge of the kitchen in the Bronte home. So one day, she's in there whipping up some gruel, and a mad dog dashes through the open door and bites her on the arm. So what does she do? Does she run screaming for Charlotte and Anne? Does she pass out in a pool of blood? Does she hightail it to the nearest pharmacist who claimed to practice surgery?

No. She didn't do any of those things, because she was Emily Bronte and she's a pillar of the literary canon. She sticks a poker in the fire til it's nice and glowing, and cauterizes her own bleeding, rabid wound.

Apparently she didn't think this was important enough to mention, because nobody knew until 3 weeks later, when Charlotte walked into the kitchen where Emily had her sleeves rolled up, peeling potatoes. I imagine it went something like this.
           "Sister!" Charlotte said. "What injury did your limb so grievously undertake?"
          "Dog bite," Emily said coolly, and kept slicing potatoes.
Charlotte starts to panic. In a town of 88 people, news about a mad dog gets around. It's been the most exciting thing since that farmer lost control of his herd of pigs market day three months ago.
          "Shut up! Was it the mad one?" Charlotte asks. Emily nods and flicks a speck of potato skin of her apron. She nods toward the fireplace.
          "Poker," she says laconically.

       I tell this story to make two points: One, Emily Bronte was a beast, and there's a reason she wrote a book like Heights (which I do love). Two, I am not Emily Bronte. When I sliced my finger open peeling an apple last night, I stared at the wound in horror, covered it from my sight with a paper towel, and called my dad. I already knew I only had two options, but I needed someone to know that I had done this horrendous thing to myself and that there was blood. I drove to the Urgent Care clinic. They were darn CLOSED. So I went to Walgreens, all the while wearing black fleece pajama bottoms covered in hearts, peace signs, and daisies. I staggered up to the pharmaceuticals counter and said, "I know you probably can't do this because of insurance and I understand if you just don't want to cause it's really gross but I cut my finger and can you please help me but a bandaid on cause my roommate's in class and I can't do it with one hand but if you don't want to that's okay."

She stared at me. "Yeah, just let me put some gloves on . . . "

So what lesson do we glean from this, children?

One: I will never write a novel like Wuthering Heights.
Two: I am immensely thankful I do not have the life experience to write a novel like Wuthering Heights. 

And that's how I cut my finger. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Walking the Line

 On Sunday, I spent an hour with Old Crow Medicine Show. One of the better decisions I've made in a while. Wisdom, humor, and darn good music. I love those guys.

On Monday, I helped myself to a small cluster of daffodils growing outside the education building. They're huge and fragrant and starry. 

Yesterday, I talked with Erin and she made me laugh because a) she's hilarious and b) I love her. And we talked about life, both heavy and light.

Today, I woke up to sunshine and and peace and bluegrass. And when I went out into the morning, I felt like running up the stairs and singing Gillian Welch songs at the top of my lungs. I should get this type of sleep more often.


In other news, I have a great brother in Spain. Even when he's not in Spain, he's pretty great. When I told him of my passion for Mumford and Sons, he sent me this video. New item on my to-do list: live in Paris and be serenaded by a British folk band.