Today is Saint Randy Day. That is to say, it is Randy’s 50th birthday. In the Latin world, people are often named after the saint’s day they are born on. Saint Randy is the patron saint of happy historians and racquetball players – no arrows, no flaying, no martyrdom and no visions of Borgesian libraries inspired by St. Jerome!
As we began this very special day in Spain, a nation of nations, we met our City Tour Guide, Matti—short for Mathilde—after our Spanish breakfast. Our coach took us for a whirl around Madrid and our first stop was at the Plaza del Toros, Madrid’s bull-fighting arena. Between spring and fall, there are bull fights every Sunday. In May, because it includes the feast day of Saitn Isidro, Madrid’s patron saint, there are bullfights every day. Happily for some, and sadly for others, we were not able to witness a bull fight. We did, however, see a statue honoring Alexander Fleming, whose discovery of penicillin saved the lives of so many (gored) toreros. We also saw a statue of the famous YoYo, whose death in the ring was preceded by a run in with a bull which projected him skyward—alas, poor YoYo.
Next we switched sports and rode past the stadium where what Matti called the world’s greatest soccer team—Real Madrid—plays its matches. The team and its predecessors have played on the same spot since 1902, but today’s version of their home has 85,000 seats. While the nation adores soccer, Matti tells us that for Spanish men it is elbow bending, not soccer, which is the favorite past time.
Our next stop was El Prado, Spain’s great art museum that had its start as the collection of the nation’s kings, who were generally bad rulers but great connoisseurs of culture. Armed with listening devices to hear Matti over the din, we explored perspective with Tintoreto’s “ Christ Washing the Feed of the Apostles,” and then breathed deeply the “airy perspective” of Velazquez’s great painting, “Las Meninas,” or the “Little Children,” who Matti suggested was perhaps the greatest painter of all time (we suspect we would have heard a different perspective if we had been in the Louvre!). Clearly many Spaniards agree with Matti – in gift shops we saw “Las Meninas” compacts, card games and dolls. Indeed, when asked upon leaving the Prada what one thing would he save, Salvador Dali choice was ‘the air; the air in the room depicted in Las Meninas.’” After dwelling on two of the “three great pillars of Spanish Art” – Velazquez and Goya (Picasso is in the Modern Art Museum), we used our remaining time for a quick visit to the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, the Flemish predecessor of chemically-inspired art rising from the deepest recesses of the subconscious (thank you, Dr. Freud).
Leaving the Prado we split into three groups: One went to the Museum of Modern Art to see a Salvador Dali exhibit; another went to a café for a leisurely lunch of tapas and cerveza; and the third group returned to the San Miguel Market to feast on Spanish delicacies such as jamon de bellota (pork from pigs fed exclusively on acorns), merengue, and crema Catalana. Unfortunately for the group that went to the Modern Art Museum, no tickets were available for the Dali exhibition so they had to content themselves with a single Dali work that was, for good reason, not included in the exhibition. So, except for that one painting, there was no hello Dali. We did see Miros and Picassos, though. The most famous and disturbing Picasso is the mural Guernica—a modernist interpretation of the massacre in the Basque town of the same name during the Spanish Civil War.
A word about flamenco, por favor.
Do not think of flamenco as ballet; do not think of it as a formal staged performance. It is, as the poet Garcia Lorca said, anti-folklorist. It is anti-traditional. If the show you see is the same as the show that a previous audience witnessed, then what you saw is not flamenco. Flamenco is improvised, but there seems to be some boundary of acceptable artistic conduct. Perhaps it is more like the 12-bar blues than jazz. More like hip hop than pop, and more like the Grateful Dead than Abba. But these American cultural references confine the concept of flamenco—flamenco has been with us since at least the first century after Christ.
And, as the feast day of Saint Randy approached its end, we attended a flamenco exhibition, or improvisation, or interpretation. At its end, while we cannot explain it, we know more about the heart of Spain than we knew before.