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Monday, December 18, 2017

Happy Holidays! Felices Fiestas!

Happy holidays from Spain! 
For this special holiday blog, I'm giving my faithful readers exactly what you want: pictures of a fantastic castle. Minimal explanation. These are my snaps from my trip to Ponferrada earlier this month. Enjoy!

When the Pons Ferratus (iron bridge) was built here to help the pilgrims to Santiago
in the twelfth century, the Knights Templar settled in to protect and care for the holy travelers. 

Most of the castle we see today was built during the time of Isabel and Fernando. 

The town built up around the castle during a period of neglect. 

Let the end of the world find us dancing! 

How pedestrians manage the steep hills in Ponferrada. 

Knight Templar monument 

Caldo berciano: What they eat in Ponferrada. Yum! 

Your most trusted source for holiday gift-giving recommends Seven Noble Knights

Friday, December 15, 2017

Love or Money?

At the risk of obviousness, I love Spain.

I've loved Spain with blind faith since I first heard about its existence when I was about eleven years old. People have been telling me lately how hard it must be, away from home during the holidays. I've nodded and smiled, only to realize later that they were talking about me.

I can't understand why anyone would not love Spain.
Photo 2005 Jessica Knauss
No, I don't feel as if I'm away from home. If we must pathologize my experience, I've come up with the term nationality dysphoria, which is a form of psychological suffering on its way to being diagnosable, but I prefer to think of it as one of my defining characteristics rather than a disease. If you asked any one of my friends or family members to describe me, their first sentence would be, "She loves Spain."

Now that I'm here, what would it take to get me to leave? I underwent just such a test of my love and loyalty this past week. I'm exhausted!

A company I worked for in Massachusetts (one of my favorite places in the United States) had been trying to contact me about a freelance job. I welcomed this idea, because in order to live in Zamora, I teach English on a part-time basis. It pays enough to live frugally, but if I want to have money left over at the end of the year to pay student loans or buy a ticket back to the United States (that part's iffy), I have to maintain a healthy schedule of freelance editing.

The company had some trouble getting in touch with me because this came about when I was traveling in Ponferrada without much internet. We finally set up a time for a call via Google Voice on Monday afternoon. I should've suspected it was a big deal when they insisted on the phone call. Most of my freelance work never leaves the realm of email.

My favorite historical figures call me to Spain.
Photo 2016 Stanley Coombs 
Nothing could've prepared me for what happened. I had my notebook next to the computer to write down the specifics, and it only has one line of notes before all hell broke loose in my brain. A huge editorial project in Spanish packed into three months for one of the most famous publishers, I would have to live in Massachusetts while I worked on it.

But... I live in Spain...?

As we kept talking, the offer took on epic proportions.

* A round-trip ticket.

* A rent-free apartment equipped with ways to eat frugally.

* More pay than I've ever earned in a year as a freelance editor, and much more than I make as a part-time teacher assistant, for three months' work.

That quantity of money wouldn't seem like much to some, but it would offer me some exciting possibilities.

It turned my head. I felt I'd only ever seen job offers like this in movies before. However, inconveniences included no health insurance and no transportation allowance. I would have to give notice at school and my gorgeous apartment and be on a flight by Christmas Day at the latest. (This kind of last-minute scramble is routine in this industry.)

I requested twenty-four hours to decide, and put up the twenty-four-hour Facebook poll at the top  of this post. The poll is highly simplified, but that was what it boiled down to for me: Love = staying in Spain, Money = leaving immediately for three months. I wanted people's gut reactions, and I got them. I was impressed, but not surprised, when Love became the favorite from the start.

I also got advice from a few people whose opinions I trust. In my shoes, they would go for the money. In my circles, money is rarer than love and you must take it when and where you find it. And, after all, I've already experienced true love, the kind you always hear about and never think is real. How greedy would I be to demand yet more love now that my sweet Stanley is gone?

I went to bed thinking that in the morning, I was probably going to pack my winter clothes to head to Massachusetts. The English idiom "sleeping on it" is "consulting with the pillow" in Spanish. My Spanish pillow did a lot of convincing, because I woke up in the opposite frame of mind.

I got up and emailed to politely decline.

With the time difference, the company wouldn't read the email for several more hours, but I felt better instantly. With that strange interlude over, I had an unusual day at school that required every ounce of extroverted energy I'd stored up over the last six months.

I was emotionally exhausted to the point of physical symptoms when I received a counteroffer.

The old offer still stood, with its plane fare and its quick time frame, but the new offer added:

* A generous food allowance.

* Even more salary!

* I would be picked up from the airport.

* I would work with people I enjoyed, as well as a new international cadre of brilliant experts.

* I would be a train ride away from all the wonders and friends of Boston.

I started thinking I would be crazy not to accept. As this blog post admits, I may just be a little crazy. Add nationality dysphoria to my normal, earth-shattering grief, and we can conclude that the only reason I'm not a complete basket case is that I'm successfully treating the symptoms of my pathology by living in Spain. I've also had some wonderful help with my grief.

I researched the details of what it would take for me to accept the offer. Sure, there were a few problems, but they all had solutions. Then the Facebook poll ended, with Love the clear winner. Why wasn't I as clear about it as my friends?

I had a coffee date that afternoon with my Zamora-native friend. It turned out that such an activity involves viewing the colorful sunset and the flight of the storks at the castle as well as a nice little walk past innumerable medieval and Renaissance architecture masterpieces that exert a physical pull on me to have tea in a cozy jazz cafe.

The storks just keep coming at Zamora Castle. (Not a photo from the coffee date.) 
I explained the extraordinary job offer to my friend, and he was impressed. "You must be really good."

"Of course, I'm the best. Didn't you know?" I replied with a sense of humor I'm not sure anyone understands but me.

All the beauty of Zamora had come out to meet me that afternoon. I savored the signature bergamot essence of Earl Grey tea in a jazz cafe in the small, unique city of my lifelong dream. My life since my true love died has dipped frequently into unbearable, but here and now, I can reach out and touch happiness, if only for the briefest moments.

"Spain will be here when you come back," my friend said. "It's not going anywhere."

It was true, but I wasn't convinced. Sure, I would have enough savings to come back in the springtime and resume everything but work at school, which I assumed wouldn't take me back after such a sudden departure. But once I was in Massachusetts, the paperwork alone would be daunting. Doubts surrounded the idea in my mind.

Some of the greatest moments of my life have happened in Spain. 
My Zamoran friend and I stopped at the supermarket (full of Spanish food!! I'll have to write a separate post about this aspect of life.) before heading to our separate homes, and we sang a few lines from Manolo García songs in the middle of the street. This is not something that ever happens in the United States. If he was rooting for me to take the job, he was going about it all wrong.

I got home, made a Spanish-style light dinner, watched some of my favorite TV in the world, and then called up an old friend. She asked me different questions than all the other wise advisors I'd called upon so far and helped me unpack what felt wrong about the "it'll be here when you come back" argument.

Her question was: Would I have left Stanley for three months to be with a rich man?

When I recovered from the copious tears that sprang up at the thought, I choked out, "Never." No question. No argument. Everyone pack up and go home.

Photo 2005 Jessica Knauss 
Maybe no one else would see it this way, and maybe it's not fair to focus so much of the meaning of life on any one thing, especially a country, but this is an accurate reflection of my psychological landscape. At a deep level, I questioned whether Spain would ever take me back after such a betrayal. Perhaps the country of my birth would latch onto me and never let go. It was as if Spain was testing my loyalty and asking me to define what's most important. I couldn't disappoint the surviving love of my life, even if it will never give me words of approval because it has no lips or vocal cords.

I suppose everyone has their price, but the offer didn't quite meet mine.

Listen up, Spain! I passed the test. I'm staying as long as you'll let me. Send money now. Lots of money!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Segovia's Medieval Treasures: The Church of the Nativity of Santa Maria de la Riaza

A monk strains to support an arch in the Church of the Nativity.
All photos in this post 2017 Jessica Knauss. 
How to describe the company Arteguías? As the living, breathing representation of the contents of my head, perhaps. Or maybe by telling you that if it didn't exist already, it would be the company I would dream of creating. 

Arteguías is a Spanish endeavor dedicated to medieval art. They publish books and present lectures on art history, make architectural models, and conduct minutely detailed guided tours of sites no other tourism company would even know about, much less consider visiting.

Looking toward the foot of the church.
Note the amazing ceiling and the baptismal font at back. 
I first stumbled onto Arteguías a few years ago, when my husband and I were as far from being able to go to Spain as we ever would be. Someday, someday... A few weeks after my arrival this year, I remembered my long-ago wishes and looked Arteguías up to find that they were soon going to give exactly the kind of tour I would like: medieval villages in the province of Segovia. I've been to the impressive city of Segovia many times, and the first time was during my college studies. Looking out the window of those tour buses, even though I thoroughly enjoyed the sites where they took us, I just knew they were skipping over the disregarded corners full of surprising cultural artifacts I would love the most.

Everyone on this tour was almost as excited as I was! 
I took the medieval villages of Segovia tour and boy, was I right. I'd been missing out hugely. Thank goodness for Arteguías, the only company willing to show me what I want to see in exactly the level of detail I demand!

You, dear blog reader, are lucky because I'm going to share the best parts of that trip with you, and you don't have to spend money on travel, or a hotel in Madrid, or anything.

Our first stop was at Santa Maria de la Riaza to see its Church of the Nativity. Like many Spanish monuments, this one is on a hill, and as you drive up, it looms over you impressively. Like many medieval buildings in the province of Segovia, it's from the late Romanesque period, because during earlier medieval times, Segovia was too unstable of a border territory to construct lasting buildings of any kind.

The distinctive bell gable is a Baroque addition. That's all we have to say about that. The Baroque period has its place, but not on this tour.

The Romanesque part of the building still has impressive dimensions and must've drawn a congregation from many surrounding towns. The original building had a characteristic semicircular apse, which was covered up by the cross-shaped sacristy at a later date. 

The gorgeous pillared arcade is all original and unique. Normally, such an arcade would be achieved with columns, but here, they didn't have any Roman monuments to steal from, so they made sturdy pillars instead. This is the largest and best preserved example of such a construction. There used to be ten windows, five on each side of the doorway, but the last two were filled in, upsetting the symmetry.

Most of the corbels are basic, but there are a few mysterious human figures among them.

The main entrance has ten corbels and a semicircular archway with five layers of different abstract designs, such as spheres (not to be confused with late Gothic Isabelline ball decor), flowers, and zigzags. The rich yellow stone takes on many blush tones here, adding to the loveliness.

Its four column capitals merited an extended discussion in spite of their poor state of preservation. They represent lions (symbol of Christ), a couple of angels, leaves and pine cones, and people fighting.

The angels don't seem to be typical beatific types. Their facial expressions are lost to us, but the positions of their bodies indicate strong emotional states. Our guide, David, said the seated one looked miffed about something, and I had to agree.

On the other side, the fighters illustrate the starting hand-fighting stance when this church was first built. The contenders had to place their feet side by side and clasp hands as if about to armwrestle, with the other arm around their opponent's neck and their foreheads touching or at least very close. The only reason I can tell you this is that David demonstrated with his assistant. These fighting scenes are so common in Segovian architecture of this period, he wanted to be sure we had the cultural context to recognize them throughout the day. It was quite a show, the stylized medieval aggression in front of that lovely archway.

On the other side of the fighters, a human figure appears to be carrying something, but we can only guess what. Someone on a previous tour observed that since he's next to the fighters, he's probably lifting weights in preparation for sporting combat. It makes sense. What do you think?

Inside, the main altar harbors a harmonious Virgin and Child image, transitional between Romanesque and Gothic styles, from the thirteenth century. She's surrounded by a Gothic altarpiece made up of many different scenes. You could've fooled me into thinking these were the national treasures we'd come to see, but when someone asked about them, David assured us they weren't worth a second glance. Many of these had been retouched in modern times, he added. Then I knew exactly where we stood. Our guide's tastes were well defined and hard to argue with.

All the wooden planks are meant to be "read" from right to left.
This one shows uncertain Biblical scenes. 
What had we come to see? These wooden planks, recovered in recent times from where they were languishing in storage and deteriorating, neglected because of changing senses of style and the modern-times superiority complex that seems to have prevailed from the Classical era until the at least the nineteenth century. David asked us to imagine what it would be like to live in a world in which these pieces of art, which we value so highly now, had always been respected and taken care of.

This fragment probably once showed a spectacular Crucifixion. 
The style of these paintings is linear Gothic, so called because of the cartoon-like black outlines and lack of depth. Personally, I don't need depth perspective in my paintings to arrive at depth of meaning and heights of artistic achievement. Neither did our guide, who explained the paintings to us for about 45 minutes! It was worth every second.

Here we see the slaughter of the innocents, made all the more emotionally evocative because the sharp swords are so enormous in comparison to the babies. I love the colors and the facial expressions, which are reserved but clear. I dare say they reflect Castilian mannerisms. The mothers' struggle in the face of events the viewer knows to be inevitable looks especially dynamic.

Christ, with the gold and orange nimbus, is brought before Pilate on the right and whipped by Roman guards on the left. The resignation on Christ's face turns into a sorrowful pain it would've been hard not to sympathize with.

Here, Judas kisses Jesus and the guards are ready to move in. Then, Judas hangs himself and a devil carries his soul away in a graphic depiction of his spiritual fate.

Christ in Majesty flanked by Mark and Luke, as demonstrated with their lion and ox symbols.

Part of a beautifully composed Epiphany scene. Before the iconography began showing the Magi or Three Wise Men as being from three different ethnic backgrounds, they represented the three ages. The oldest, with a white beard, always comes first because he's the wisest. Here we get to see his face because he's kneeling to present his gift of gold to Mary and Jesus. I love the detail of doffing his crown. Behind him, the middle-aged man with a brown beard and the young man with no beard are missing their heads.

This fragment is probably the entrance into Jerusalem, with children laying out carpets for the "royal" arrival.

There was still more to see. This Crucifixion is transitional between Romanesque and Gothic. When we see these artistic examples, it's like finding "the missing link." The lack of physiological detail, the long modesty panel, and the serene facial expression are Romanesque. The crossed feet, the Y shape of his arms, and the mild tilt of his head are the beginnings of the Gothic style.

Last but not least, we studied this baptismal font. It's made from a single block of stone and is probably much older than the church. Its arches display strong Visigothic influence, and its shape also tells a story.

David lifts an imaginary child by the
armpits into the baptismal font. 
According to our knowledgeable, affable, and entertaining guide, in the beginning of the Christian Church, baptism was always by immersion. The sacrament would've been given to children between three and five years old, so the font had to be big enough for the priest to take the child by the armpits and submerge him or her to the neck. The water would've been warmed whenever possible. The shape of baptismal fonts changed as their function changed. First, they became more goblet-shaped because they started immersing children at a younger age, cradling them and dipping them sideways, again leaving the head dry. You wouldn't need nearly as much warm water. Immersion got less and less popular as time wore on, so all a priest needs now is a bowl of consecrated water to pour or smudge on the child's forehead.

Armed with more new knowledge than I ever expected so early in the day, we were then off to see the medieval treasures of Ayllón.

Arteguías put a little "chronicle" of the tour on their webpage. I show up in at least two of the photos! Visit this blog in the coming weeks for more of my take on the wonders of the day.