Losing My Religion in Madrid

Yes, to smell pork; to eat of the habitation which
your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into. I
will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you,
walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat
with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.
The Merchant of Venice (I.,iii)

We’re sitting in a taberna in the middle of a two and a half-hour walking tour of Madrid when the REM song in the title comes on. This stop is a welcome and well-engineered break that benefits everybody: Tour participants get to use the facilities and cool off from the intense heat, and the tour guide gets to gently upsell the not-so-free tours to his captive audience . The upsell is part of the deal, and I don’t mind it so much. I became a fan of these “free” or pay-as-you-wish tours in Paris recently, and found the value of the overall walk and information to far outweigh its minor commercial aspects. Some in our group do end up buying offerings which include everything from a literary tour to a pub crawl , while others opt for a quick beer or Coke. Of course, the taberna itself benefits the most from those who peruse the rest of the menu in the process, which at least suggests the possibility of returning later for a platter of paella or some late-night tapas. T and I are traveling with our sons and his sister, and while we sip a little water from our bottles, we don’t eat, and find the prospect of doing so a little daunting, as we’re typically not big pork consumers…more on that later. As mentioned before, I’m taking all this in to the incongruous soundtrack of Michael Stipe singing “Losing My Religion”, and the disconnect seems stark–at least at first.

About an hour earlier, we had met our guide, Sebastian, at the Plaza Mayor under the tell-tale red umbrella of Sandeman’s New Europe Tours. The first thing Sebastian did after the preliminary niceties was to inform us that this was going to be a history-centered tour, actually offering an opportunity for the history-phobic among us to opt out. When no one did, he started off with a quick survey of the geographic origins of our group. We were pretty diverse, representing Turkey, Flanders, Germany, The UK, Canada, and a number of US states. Unbeknownst to us however, with this basic survey, the history lesson had already begun, as Sebastian used our home countries to illustrate the reach and/or influence of the Spanish empire in its heyday. Indeed, looking at Madrid in relation to what I’ve seen of its former colonies in the Americas felt to me like meeting a friend’s grandmother for the first time, and suddenly realizing where she got her smile, or that cleft in her chin.  This part of the talk was quickly followed by a brief overview of Madrid proper, including the revision of the city’s boundaries and its illustrious past as a tax haven peopled by what the rest of Spain referred to as gatos or wall-climbing cats (read: social-climbing hicks).

Today, the descendants of these so-called gatos take tremendous pride in their madrileno heritage, a heritage that, according to Sebastian, an individual can only claim if he, both his parents and both sets of grandparents were born in the Spanish capital. Poseurs are frowned upon.

Such triage is a recurring theme in early Spanish history, and it isn’t long before a pattern emerges; I soon find myself appreciating our guide’s good-natured honesty when presenting his country’s problematic past. When we stop in front of a flamenco club, for example, Sebastian takes an opportunity not only to encourage us to see the show (it’s a good one, he suggests– i.e. not so tourist trappy), but to divest us of our flamenco mythology. He points out that flamenco music and dance, along with the popular image of fan-waving, crimson-lipped women, their heels stomping seductive percussion to a solo guitar, would never have been accepted as part of Spain’s mainstream culture by anyone considered respectable. Flamenco was gypsy music, and was therefore worthless and discreditable by association. He really gets my attention when he likens it to jazz and blues in the U.S., emphasizing that it was the music of an oppressed minority, born of suffering and hopelessness, before it emerged as the signature sound of a nation. To make matters worse in the eyes of the culture police, these gypsies (the Romani people) weren’t even genetically Spanish, having gradually made their way into Southern Europe from their ancestral roots in Northern India. This portion of the tour immediately brought to mind our encounters with gypsy camel herders while driving through Rajasthan, India last summer, two seemingly disparate episodes proving once again how connected people truly are.

And speaking of connections, it’s hard to ignore just how culturally and socially diverse Spain was before the Inquisition with its accompanying murderous hysteria and paranoia.  Unlike the bitterness expressed by Shylock above, who, as a Jew, is very much a social pariah in Shakespeare’s Renaissance Venice, things point to relatively friendly coexistence  among Madrid’s various ethnic groups for quite some time before things went south. This inter-connectedness and tolerance, particularly for its Jewish and Muslim inhabitants is written all over Madrid’s historic architecture, which reflects people’s tendency to hire the finest builders and craftsmen, without regard for religious affiliation, when that was the  acceptable thing to do.

Things of course did change, which leads me back to the taberna, and our lunch. It doesn’t take long for a visitor to realize that it’s going to be very difficult to eat in Madrid if you can’t eat, don’t like, or would prefer to avoid pork. Huge legs of cured pork hang from virtually all eating establishments, and one of the most popular restaurant chains here is aptly named Museo del Jamon. Seafood comes in a distant second, but I’m going to guess that it’s far more prominent in Spain’s coastal cities; in land-locked Madrid though, pork rules. We’re not strict pork abstainers: I don’t mind it, the boys like it a lot when they can get it, and T. only spurns pork that’s not bacon. That being said, I was still struck by the sheer magnitude of pork prevalence in this city. It turns out that even this has an unfortunate historical connection. As Muslims and Jews were driven out of Spain via the ethnic cleansing process of the Inquisition, those who were left, many of whom chose to convert in order keep some semblance of their lives and/or property, were often subjected to “tests” to gauge their comfort-level with pork products.  So for the zealous, or even just the fearful among the general citizenry, what better emblem to use to display one’s Christianity (and therefore ethno-religious “purity”) than a prominent display of pig parts?  And so the idea stuck.

Our tour of Madrid is full of such uncomfortable truths, but I think these stories hold value in the way they force us to confront the many times we, as human beings, have chosen to relinquish our common decency for convenience, flag, or church, and wind up losing all that’s truly sacred in the process.

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spot-light
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it


 Scenes from our day trip to Segovia:


The Jig is Up: A Parting Glance at TSTP

“When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that.”

The Winter’s Tale (IV, iv, 159-161)

Each and every Shakespeare’s Globe performance ends with a jig. That’s right, everybody dances. This custom cuts across genres as the star-crossed lovers, deposed monarchs, and bloody corpses we associate with tragedies and histories rise from the dead to trip the light fantastic just like the newly-married couples in the weddings that punctuate Shakespeare’s comedies. During my time here, I’ve seen everything from uproarious cabaret style burlesque in Measure for Measure, to soft-shoe tap in As You Like It, to a rather brief, ultra-manly display of hand-clapping and foot-stomping at the end of Richard II (hardly a jig at all; honestly, I felt jipped). These jigs look like fun, but they’re actually serious, meticulously choreographed fun.

As a connoisseur of cross-pollinating Shakespeare with contemporary music while busting-a-move, and other myriad forms of anachronistic silliness for my school’s annual Shakespeare festival, I was immediately fascinated by the idea of the jig, and mentioned this to Dickon Tyrrell and Brendan O’Hea, two cast members from the Globe’s current production of Measure for Measure who indulged our TSTP group in a post-show Q&A during our first week. I wanted to know how they felt about performing the jigs and how long the routines took to prepare. Well, it turns out that they take quite a while to prepare; rehearsals for the jig and the play begin pretty much simultaneously. As for how they feel about dancing, both actors agreed that while they didn’t necessarily look forward to learning the jigs, they accept them as part of the Globe’s culture, so they play along accordingly. Dickon went on to recall a story about one featured actor (apparently quite brilliantly typecast as Iago in Othello) who flat-out refused to dance, choosing instead to take a “dignified” bow amidst the rest of the company’s gleeful boogie-ing. I can only imagine who ultimately looked sillier.

It wasn’t long after this session that some enterprising TSTP comrades and I started to wonder whether our relatively low-key ( if not low-brow) performances from As You Like It would/could also end in a jig. At one point, there was talk of preparing an Irish step routine to “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, which in retrospect may itself have been a clear sign that we had no business dancing. So instead, our final (and unauthorized) “jig” on the Sam Wanamaker playhouse stage consisted of a song and hand movements furnished by Colin Hurley’s five-year old son. Here goes:

Oh my love is a-bubblin’ over
Oh my love is a-bubblin’ over
Oh my love is a-bubblin’ over
How do you do it?
[Sorry. You’ll just have to imagine the hand movements for now.]

If all this talk of dancing and singing of kindergarten songs sounds a little out of step with Shakespearean theatre, this is partly why Shakespeare’s Globe is such a wonderful place. Here, the idea is not so much to venerate Shakespeare and his works, as to celebrate them. Shakespeare is fun here because he and his works are rendered every bit as human and accessible as the playwright intended. The Globe, rooted in William Shakespeare’s genius and Sam Wanamaker’s tireless passion, is clearly dedicated to promoting Shakespeare’s universal appeal. As we speak, the Globe to Globe Hamlet tour is slowly making its way to every country in the world, and it’s not lost on me that anyone who lives in or can make it to London can access world-class theatre at the Globe for less than the price of a movie ticket.

Now that the dance is over for TSTP, I want to express my appreciation for the Globe’s inclusive philosophy as well as the ESU’s generosity and commitment to teachers; to Patrick Spottiswoode, Fiona Banks and the entire Globe Education Team; to an incredibly talented and merry band of “grown-ups” who molded us into thespians, and most especially, to a stellar group of 24 fellow learner-sojourners. Thanks to you, my three weeks in London have been a-bubblin’ over with the laughter, inquiry, discovery, and spirit of play that I look forward to sharing with my students and colleagues.  How do you do it?