Monday, 29 June 2015

So long, Cantabria

My first sense of Santander was not unlike the one I had of Trieste some twenty years earlier. In both cases, I knew nothing of the place before. Both are situated between the sea and the mountains. Both are distinctly European, but one can easily get confused where exactly in Europe they are. Trieste didn’t look like an Italian city to me. Of all Spanish cities I’ve seen so far, Santander did feel least Spanish. Later, I found similarity between these two places on a deeper level.

I find this mermaid near Palacio de la Magdalena rather sexy. Unlike her caudal fin, the Latimeria-like pelvic fins make perfect sense to me.

I got my first impression of santanderinos the following day, on boarding the city bus. Two things did strike me:

  1. It was too quiet.
  2. Nobody was smiling.
Let me explain. In Canarias, people board guaguas to talk as much as to travel. People shout “Hola, guapa” or “Chao, mi niña” across the bus cabin. The seats closest to the front door usually get occupied by talkers who spend the rest of the journey distracting the driver. People do ask each other things (and answer). If you ask anyone about your destination, half of the bus joins to explain where you have to get off and what to do next, mi niña. And they do smile at you.

Not here. Even though that first impression was shaken one Friday night (the bus was full of drunk and loud youngsters), it still holds true.

At first, I could’t believe that people here really speak Castellano Castellano. They say “Voy a Madrith”, €10 is “dieth euros” (not “dieh euroh” like in Canarias), and they use vosotros.

When I arrived (on a slow FEVE train from Bilbao), the sun was shining. “Just you wait”, I was told. I was waiting for a month. Patiently. I spent the two last days of October on the beach. On the 1st of November, the floodgates of the heavens opened and winter began. I had to invest in an umbrella and a pair of welly boots. Again! Maybe leaving most of winter things in Porvoo was a mistake after all. (Clothes! Layers and layers of them. I hate it.) February was particularly horrible, with thunderstorms and hailstorms every other day and simply rain in between.

I made good friends in Santander, just like I did in Trieste. None of them are native of either place. This may, or may not, suggest that you can’t make friends with santanderinos. In any case, I can’t prove it. As a rule, Cantabrians are proud not to be from Santander; or, if they are, they hide it well.

If you follow this blog, you know that Santander is full of live music and other cultural events, many of which are free. There even are free dance classes — bachata, kizomba, tango... Thanks to the weather, not that much was happening outdoors. (Maybe now, when the temperature is in mid-twenties, it is not raining and I am not there any longer.) The Carnival did not impress me at all, and a couple of Semana Santa processions that I’ve seen almost freaked me out. So what. Cantabria is more than Santander, and there is a lot to sea.

I was working in Liencres, a town about 9 kilometres west of Santander, where you can find some of the finest beaches in Cantabria. I mean, Santander’s own El Sardinero and Playa de Mataleñas are great by any city beach standards, but once I’d discovered La Arnía, Covachos, Somocuevas and Valdearenas, there was no way back.

Covachos is probably the most beautiful naturist beach I've ever been. You can only access it by foot when the tide is out.

Every second Sunday, there was a walk-cum-language exchange organised by La Escuela Oficial de Idiomas de Santander. Thanks to these excursions, I got acquainted with some corners of Cantabria I’d never get to on my own, such as “the capital of the world” Arredondo or spooky Túneles de La Engaña.

Cantabria is small (Canary Islands have larger area and population), but, disregarding the weather for a while, it has everything one can dream about. There are mountains — not the hills called “mountains”, like in England, no, the real mountains with snow on top, Picos de Europa. On a good day, I could see them from my school window.

Meltwater lake near Fuente Dé.

There are rivers — again, real rivers, not barrancos with puny streams of water which disappear during the dry months.

Ghostly face of la Cascada del Asón in Collados del Asón Natural Park.

Then, there are forests. (Yes, you’ve got it, the real ones.) España Verde, of which Cantabria is a part, is not called Verde for nothing. I did not realise how green it is until went to Málaga for a long weekend in the beginning of May. When I flew back to Bilbao just three days later, the visual impact of The Green took me by surprise. Now, at the peak of Canarian summer, I miss you, Holy Chlorophyll.

Loads of green stuff near Barcenillas.

And then, there is a sea. English may call it Bay of Biscay and French Golfe de Gascogne, but here it is called much more respectfully: Mar Cantábrico.

I should have explored España Verde beyond Cantabria a bit more, but I didn’t. Just before Christmas, I went to San Sebastian with Toastmasters Sardinero group. I liked it. Could have been nicer if it were not raining all day. Then, I went to Las Palmas for Christmas/New Year break. The cheapest flights I was able to book were from Bilbao (to Las Palmas) and to Santiago de Compostela (back). I decided to stretch my journey back to Santander over three nights, staying in Santiago, A Coruña and Oviedo. Back to work, I told my colleagues about my holidays.

— ¿Te ha gustado Bilbao?
— Sí, claro.
— Yo soy de Bilbao.
— Ah. Por supuesto, me gustó mucho.
— Mucho mejor que Santander, ¿no?
When I mentioned Oviedo, another colleague of mine, who seemingly was not paying attention, turned to me and asked:
— ¿Te ha gustado Asturias?
— Sí, mucho.
— Soy de Oviedo.
— Lo se.
— Es que Bilbao es feísimo, sabes?
— ¿Pero qué dices? (The first teacher chips in.)
— Es verdad verdadera.
My last week in Cantabria was supersaturated. Every day I was saying goodbyes on an alarming scale. Also, in a knowledge that these were my last days of sleep deprivation, I almost gave up sleeping. Luckily, I had two school excursions, to the two places I wanted to go myself but somehow never did, Cabárceno and to the Cave of Altamira, so I did not have to prepare classes for those days.

The conversations with my colleagues kept revolving around my imminent departure.

— Ay Kirill, es tu última semana aquí, ¿verdad?
— Sí.
— ¿Cuando te marchas?
— El viernes.
— Jolín, es muy prontito.
— Eso es.
— Que guay. Este finde vas a la playa con tus hijos, con tu mujercita...
— Sí, claro.
— Vas a compensar el tiempo perdido, ¿no?
— Por supuesto.
A lump in my throat prevents me from giving longer answers.

Yes, I knew I was going to stay in Santander for eight months. I did not expect my stay there to be exactly eight months. I have to thank Ryanair cheap direct flight scheduling (Santander — Gran Canaria, one weekly flight) for the fact that I flew back home on my last working day. Which probably spared me a few more days of heartwrenching farewells.

Somocuevas as I last saw it

Adiós, Cantabria. Te echaré de menos.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015


a film by Hayao Miyazaki

“They smoke a lot in this movie”, observed Timur.

“This is because it reflects reality”, said Tamara.

The Wind Rises was the second Studio Ghibli film Timur wanted to watch with me (the first was From Up on Poppy Hill). Much sadder affair, but luckily not another Grave of the Fireflies (I couldn’t bring myself to watch that movie for the second time). Once again, ample quotes from other Miyazaki works, such as Porco Rosso and Castle in the Sky, which I kind of expected: it wouldn’t be a Miyazaki without air ships, and this is a film about an aircraft designer! Comic relief is provided by Jiro’s vertically challenged boss, Mr. Kurokawa (a male equivalent of Edna Mode, as Tamara noticed, and probably the most memorable character of the movie). And yes, they do smoke a lot.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Custard and Company

poems by Ogden Nash, selected and illustrated by Quentin Blake

I bought this book (1st edition, 1979) in Oxfam some years ago. It became one of Yuri’s favourite poetry books, his #1 poem being Can I get you a glass of water? Or, Please close the glottis after you. A couple of days ago, I took it from a shelf to look up a poem suitable for young learners of English as a second language. Well, I didn’t find any. Even the shortest of them are too complex for the level I was dealing with. I am sure they can be very rewarding for more advanced learners though. I can totally imagine a great lesson built around, say, To a Small Boy Standing on My Shoes While I am Wearing Them, or Don’t Cry, Darling, It’s Blood All Right. If I ever get a chance to teach it, that is.

Nah, forget the teaching. These are wonderful poems (84 in total). No matter how many times I read them, they make me smile.

Today, I find this one particularly mine.

Between Birthdays

My birthdays take so long to start.
They come along a year apart.
It’s worse than waiting for a bus;
I fear I used to fret and fuss,
But now, when by impatience vexed
Between one birthday and the next,
I think of all that I have seen
That keeps on happening in between.
The songs I’ve heard, the things I’ve done,
Make my unbirthdays no so un-

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Москва — Петушки

by Venedikt Erofeev

Moscow—Petushki, a poem in prose, a tragedy told as an anekdot, could well be unpenetrable, and not just to non-Russian readers. But if you grew up in the USSR and former Eastern bloc, it should make perfect sense. I am re-reading it now at the Playa de Las Canteras. It lost none of its charm and poetry. It is still hysterically funny and incredibly sad. And, in spite of all the alcohol consumed, it is not about alcohol, but first and foremost about love.

I did not exactly grow up on this book. I first read Москва — Петушки when I just graduated from the university, in 1989. It was not samizdat but an official (slightly abridged) publication in Трезвость и Культура (Abstinence and Culture), a magazine which I would never read otherwise. (Why on earth they publish it there? Was it some kind of joke? I never found out.)

Erofeev died the following year. When I heard the news, I brought it up in a conversation with my colleague. She said, “Yes, I know. He went out like a candle.” I asked, “Did you know him?” and she answered, “Yes. Remember the letter «Ю» in Moscow—Petushki? I was his letter «Ю».”

Я как-то попробовал сосчитать все ее сокровенные изгибы, и не мог сосчитать — дошел до двадцати семи и так забалдел от истомы, что выпил зубровки и бросил счет, не окончив.
Но красивее всего у нее предплечья, конечно. В особенности, когда она поводит ими и восторженно смеется и говорит: «Эх, Ерофеев, мудила ты грешный!» О, дьяволица! Разве можно такую не вдыхать?
Случалось, конечно, случалось, что и она была ядовитой, но это все вздор, это все в целях самообороны и чего-то там такого женского — я в этом мало понимаю. Во всяком случае, когда я ее раскусил до конца, яду там совсем не оказалось, там была малина со сливками. В одну из пятниц, например, когда я совсем был тепленький от зубровки, я ей сказал:
— Давай, давай всю нашу жизнь будем вместе! Я увезу тебя в Лобню, я облеку тебя в пурпур и крученый виссон, я подработаю на телефонных коробках, а ты будешь обонять что-нибудь — лилии, допустим, будешь обонять. Поедем!
А она — молча протянула мне шиш. Я в истоме поднес его к своим ноздрям, вдохнул и заплакал:
— Но почему? — заклинаю — ответь — почему???
Вот тогда-то она и разрыдалась и обвисла на шее:
«Умалишенный! Ты ведь сам знаешь, почему! Сам — знаешь, почему, угорелый!»
И после того — почти каждую пятницу повторялось одно и то же: и эти слезы, и эти фиги. Но сегодня — сегодня что-то решится, потому что сегодняшняя пятница — тринадцатая по счету. И все ближе к Петушкам, царица небесная!..
Венедикт Ерофеев, Москва — Петушки

Once I tried to count all her innermost curves, and I couldn’t. I counted up to twenty-seven and got so dizzy from faintness that I drank some Zubrovka and gave up counting.
But more beautiful than anything are her forearms. Especially when she moves them, laughing ecstatically, and says, ‘Eh, Erofeev, you sinful shitass’. Oh, the she-devil. Is it possible not to breathe in someone like her?
She could also be venomous, but that was all nonsense, a form of self-defense and of something feminine — I understand very little about these things. In any case, when I had gotten to the core of her there was no venom left, just strawberries and cream. On one Friday, for instance, when I was really warm from the Zubrovka, I said to her:
“Come on, let’s be together our whole life. I’ll carry you off to Lobnya, clothe you in purple and linen, and make a little extra working on telephone boxes while you’ll sit home sniffing something — lilies, let’s say. Come on.”
But silently she made a fig with her hand. Languidly, I drew it to my nostrils, breathed in, and started to cry:
“But why? Why?”
She made me another fig. I drew it in and frowned and started crying again:
“But why?” I implored. “Answer, why???”
And then she started sobbing and flopped onto my neck:
“Lunatic, madman, you know exactly why.”
And since then almost every Friday the same thing has been repeated — the tears and the figs. But today, today, something will be decided because today is our thirteenth Friday. And I’m getting closer and closer to Petushki, Heavenly Queen...
Venedikt Erofeev, Moscow to the End of the Line (translated by H. William Tjalsma)

Friday, 5 June 2015


a film by Gorō Miyazaki

Timur really wanted to watch together with me the Studio Ghibli films he bought (with his own money) while I was not looking. Which was sweet. So tonight he treated me to From Up on Poppy Hill. Which was sweet too.

It could have been too sweet. All the familiar ingredients (high-school romance, bicycle, link to wartime etc.) are there and you can’t fail to notice the references to (or borrowings from) other Studio Ghibli movies, such as Whisper of the Heart, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Ocean Waves. Yet it is different. I liked the humour, music and the overall 1960s feel. Oh, and the happy ending.