Tag Archives: majeza

Toulouse: “Who ever lov’d who lov’d not at first sight?”

20 Jan

Toulouse Old_brick_wall

“Who ever lov’d who lov’d not at first sight?”  Those who know that line know it’s Shakespeare from “As You Like It” – but actually it’s Shakespeare quoting Marlowe, a little homage to his more accomplished contemporary; interesting, particularly, because in my opinion Marlowe was a keener analyst of desire than Shakespeare, though I have only instinct and no textual support to back that up.  The important thing is that it’s true.  There’s now even science to support it; in “Narcissism Guides Mate Selection,” published in Evolutionary Psychology 2 (2004) Liliana Alvarez and Klaus Jaffe (?) write:

“Research has shown two bases for love at first sight. The first is that the attractiveness of a person can be very quickly determined, with the average time in one study being 0.13 seconds. The second is that the first few minutes of a relationship have shown to be predictive of the relationship’s future success, more so than what two people have in common or whether they like each other.”

And so it was with me and Toulouse.  My first morning here I walked out onto the street at dawn, as the sun started coating the walls of the slightly pinkish brick that the whole city is built with and that was it.  I think it actually took 0.9 seconds in my case.  But I was finished.  It was all over.  I was lost, tumbling into that so familiar abyss.  I had never fallen for a city so hard and so fast in my entire life.

Why?  Well, “you can’t really say why you love somebody,” Stella says in Streetcar… but you try anyway, only because the temptations of let-me-count-the-ways and the attempt to grasp the ungraspable are so powerful.

To start with the most banal and obvious, it’s beautiful.  Not a stunner, a Paris or a Florence or a Venice, but even more loveable because it’s not so perfect.  Who wants every city to be Paris anyway?  The medieval quarters are amazingly well-preserved and in the nineteenth-century neighborhoods it’s interesting to see the classic Haussmanian idiom of French cities translated into the local brick.  But that’s not really it.

There’s the immediacy and availability of pleasure in all forms, somehow even slightly more than in the rest of France.  Here, I’m reminded of Istanbul actually, because I think Turks might also have that same keen sense of “the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure” as the French do and even in Istanbul’s current hali, you feel, like in France, that you’re in the presence of a very ancient tradition of the production and consumption of luxury.  New York tempts you at every turn as well, except New York makes you struggle so much to reach the promised gratification that it in the end it feels as if you’ve had it pulled through your nose, as the Greek expression has it. 

The food: though these things are eaten all over the country, this is the home turf of foie gras and pork belly and duck confit and restaurants that proudly assure their customers that their french fries are made in goose fat, the way McDonald’s promises you there are no trans-fats in anything.  The wines are thick and rough and tannic and delicious; the only place where there’s no need to worry about ordering: whatever house red comes by the carafe is always perfect.  The streets are filled with always-full bars and cafes and the disconcerting sound of talking, of discussion, I mean of people really conversing.  Then it’s a university town, so it’s full of beautiful young people trying to fix all of their above oral fixations: talking and drinking and smoking and making out in public all over the place just like they should be.  And it’s not just the young; that magical ability the French have to make it seem like they have more available leisure time than people in any other industrialized country is even more visible here than in Paris, to the point where even someone as anti-work as me sometimes wants to ask: “Does anybody here work?”  And it’s not Italy, where everything is so homebound — all so tied to mamma’s apron strings — that most life happens domestically and out of view.  Here, more like Spain, it’s out on the street, even in January; it’s public, like in the natural polis.  It makes all the difference.  You can feel people needing interaction hungrily, like Greece in better days, craving the stimulation of others.

(This is a characteristic of the French everywhere — this love, this need for language and the exchange of ideas, sometimes what seems like nothing but a deep gratifying pleasure taken in the sheer enunciating.  It’s why — if you don’t speak any French at all and have no clue what people are talking about — every conversation you hear seems to have this tone of desperate urgency about it.  That the French are rude or cold or unfriendly is patent bull-shit; they are absolutely none of those things — quite the opposite; but if interaction or closeness is sometimes a little difficult to achieve if your French isn’t at least very good, it’s the importance of language again that explains it.  Sorry — I think they feel — but life is too short and there’s too much to talk about for me to help you with your halting French right now.)

And then there’s St. Sernin, the spectacular Romanesque basilica named after the patron saint of the city, which has become a major obsession of mine and in which I’m finding myself unable to keep from spending at least an hour every day.  This may not be the most beautiful church in Europe but it’s certainly the most beautiful Romanesque church in Europe, and for me, therefore, the most beautiful, since I have what’s almost – no, what’s clearly — a powerful erotic attraction to the style.  Knowing the renovation history of European ecclesiastic architecture, its interior is almost suspiciously austere, so I’m pretty sure it was re-Romanesqued or de-Baroqued, or however you want to see it, at some point.  This happened a lot in the nineteenth century, when Romanticism made the mediaeval more attractive to people than anything that had to do with the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries: it generally involved stripping later decorative accretions from older churches and restoring their “purity.”  Especially in southern Italy one finds this having been done fairly often, with mixed results: some before and after images I’ve seen of Sicily’s Byzantine churches seem successful; with the famous convent church of song and legend, Santa Chiara in Naples, they didn’t have a choice, since the Baroque church had been bombed by the Allies into a burnt shell and they rebuilt according to the original Gothic plan; others, like the practically made-up design of that silly Moorish cathedral in Amalfi, are clearly failures.  But whatever distractions they removed from St. Sernin I’m all for: nothing should impede the soaring, muscled athleticism of this structure and the space it embraces so powerfully.  It has to be seen — and felt, like flesh — to be believed.

St. Sernin is god-like; the building itself overwhelming the idea of whatever deity is supposed to be honored there.  The city’s other churches are more human and all quirky in the extreme.  There’s the Jacobins, named after some father monastery dedicated to St. Jacques and not those Jacobins; but still kind of jarring — like Our Lady of the Bolsheviks or something.  Only in France.  This church is described as having two naves, but only has one nave really, with a towering row of palm-like columns running right down the dead center (?) like the rope at a Hasidic wedding, so that the view of the apse and altar are obstructed from almost everywhere, so much so that mass is said at an altar set up against one of the side walls because if you’re further than even ten feet from the real altar you can only see it by peeking from around these, granted, beautiful columns.  Then there’s the city’s cathedral church, St. Etienne.  This was begun as an unusually low-arced and unusually wide Romanesque church, but that idea was apparently scrapped as not grand enough, so they continued the rest of the church in a higher Gothic style.  The thing is it wasn’t continued on the same axis.  So you enter the older Romanesque part, which now almost feels like an exonarthex in an Orthodox church, then the building’s axis makes a left turn, for about 50 feet, then a sharp right, then continues down the central nave.  Later they pasted a Renaissance — but it being France, still slightly Gothicky — belfry onto the northwest corner of the façade, and at some point a shorter little clock tower in front of that, so that, as disconcerting as the interior is, the exterior looks like it was put together from leftover pieces of different Lego sets.  And yet it works.  Works the way that French girl in the bar can put on an orange sweater and purple scarf and make it work.  And, like her, St. Etienne is quite elegant and well-loved by all, in fact.  And almost every other church in the city is that kind of pastiche; they must’ve been some art historian, early post-modernist’s wet dream back in the eighties.

“History is a personal emotion for you” a good friend once told me, and all these buildings are obvious signs of a weighty, turbulent past.  Is that why I fall in love? Because someone has a complicated past?  What we used to call “baggage”?  You don’t have to be too long immersed in Toulouse’s diffuse and slightly transgressive air of sexiness (a national poll apparently voted the local accent the hottest in France), or venture too far out into the surrounding countryside, which even in the dead of winter looks so lush and cultivatable that you half expect figs and quinces or roasted partridges from somewhere to fall into your lap, to believe that what we recognize as Europe’s first love poetry and, in fact, the West’s entire concept of Romantic love, as perverse and ridiculous as it seems to the rest of the world (and is: “Wait, you mean you’re supposed to not get what you want?”  Yep. “And just pine and suffer forever?” Uh huh…)  all come from this little corner of southwestern France.*  In fact, so much of what’s considered quintessentially mediaeval in the popular mind took some consummate form in this region.  And that includes the fact that so many of the skylofrangoi Crusaders that effed us over in 1204 came from around here.  But that no longer matters, you see.  Because while the Pope’s apology for the sack of Constantinople in 2004 left me cold, Toulouse and love have taught me to forgive.

That brings us to the crusade which brought an end to all that love and poetry.  If they think you know no history, which the French automatically assume about anyone who speaks American English, people here will talk to you about the Albigensian Crusade like it happened last week.  The ostensible purpose of this “crusade” was to eliminate a group of heretics that were probably never such a large percentage of the population of southern France; I think a popular Dan-Brown-type interest in “alternative” Christianities has perhaps exaggerated the importance of the Cathars, who were actually weirder than any mediaeval Mormons one could imagine.  But it was the perfect excuse, with the blessing if not egging on of the Always and Eternally Holy See, for the kingdom of France and its northern dependents, to go on a conquering rampage throughout the independent duchies and counties of the south, decimating and depopulating whole swaths of the most urbanized, prosperous and sophisticated part of Europe and ending, as well, Europe’s first vernacular literature by destroying the court culture that supported it and reducing its language, Occitan or Provencal, to a despised folk dialect.  This strikes all the chords in my personality that are peculiarly sensitive to the marginalized, the subjected, the memory abandoned, the tradition vanished, the lost, the forgotten — “all those things you know and tell me of, things that are long dead,” as the lyrics of a favorite Greek song testify.

(It’s why I love the Italian South as well.  And it would maybe be why I’d love the American South too, if there weren’t so much else so ugly about it.)

So does that explain it?  I don’t know.  Who did you fall in love with Stella?  Obviously someone completely in love with himself.  That’s a powerful draw, isn’t it?  Self-confidence.  Probably goes for France as a whole.  We think they’re all that because they’re so obviously convinced of it themselves, and that’s fine with me: “Great souls are always loyally submissive,” Carlyle said, “reverent to what is over them: only small mean souls are otherwise.”  But even for France, I have never come across a city or a population so cocksure confident of their specialness than Toulouse and the Toulousains.  Remember, we’re not far from D’Artagnan’s hometown here, and actually, if there’s any truth in the exaggerated cliché that Toulouse is a little bit of Spain in France (when it’s really Barcelona that delusionally thinks it’s a little bit of France in Spain), it’s that people’s comportment here has a definite element of swaggering, almost Spanish majeza** to it; and add that to the already elaborate culture of French flirtiness and you get a heady mix for sure.  And it’s the only city in France where rugby is more wildly popular than soccer and that tells you something too.  St. Sernin, come to think of it, is built like a rugby player.

So is that it?  I dunno.  A mix of all that?  Self-confidence bordering on the sweetest kind of arrogance?  Sophistication with a definite rough edge?  A behind the scenes complexity you don’t see all of, not at first at least, if ever?  Something quirky and slightly off: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion” as another Brit said?  I don’t know.  And probably don’t really care.  I just know how it feels.  And for those of you who have made it this far, sorry, I have no images of the Beloved to share — just the bricks.  He’s all mine.

For G., Toulouse, January 2014

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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* The most powerful, searing contemporary treatment of Romantic or Courtly love in all its cancerous beauty is Kaija Saariaho’s 2002 opera, L’amour de loin (Love from Afar) with a libretto by Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf.  It’s based on the real, historical figure of Jaufre Rudel, a 12th century Aquitanian prince and poet who fell in love with a Toulousainne princess married to the Count of the Crusader state of Tripoli in Syria (makes Maalouf’s collaboration even more interesting) without having ever seen her.  The music and poetry are beautiful and the opera’s psychological insights are razor-sharp — disturbingly so.  The end leaves you in pieces on the floor — me at least.  You’ll never come closer to the soul of Majnun in the desert than this.

It’s a shame only one aria is in Occitan; it would’ve been a real coup and homage if the whole libretto were.  Get the DVD; Dawn Upshaw has to be seen and not just heard.

**Majeza,n., or majo, adj.: you can read the whole post where the meaning of this word appears previously: “Un Verano en Nueva York”, but if not, here’s the quote from it:

Majeza is a very Spanish term that encompasses such a complex of qualities that it’s difficult to explain, especially in English, which is tragically lacking in a comparable term, as its speakers (aside from the Irish) are in most of its qualities.  It means openness and frankness and humour and swagger; it means being hospitable without being in anyway servile; it means being able to put away copious amounts of wine and pig meat; being friendly and spirited and generous while always maintaining a kind of stylish dignity and flair; it partakes of some of the qualities of Greek and Turkish leventeia in that sense; in fact, it’s a word with a certain undoubtable Balkanness about it.  Soon after the term appeared in, I think, the late eighteenth-century, working-class barrios of Madrid, it almost immediately became associated during the Napoleonic Wars with the city’s street kids, who terrified the French with their suicidal bravery, so it probably originally implied a quickness to pull a knife too and no squeamishness about seeing a little bit of your own blood shed as well.  That doesn’t apply anymore, though the ferocity into which demonstrations in Madrid have descended these days makes you think twice about that; I’m proud of the angry tenacity of the Spanish protests; don’t know what they’ll accomplish but it’s good to know Spaniards can still be scary; that anger has become such a stigmatized, pathologized emotion in our civilization (“You know…I think you have a lot of anger…”) is partly what’s let banks and governments get away with what they have over the past few decades and generally has brought us to the civilizational crisis we find ourselves in.  No, it’s not the other way around.  In any event, courage is still certainly an implied element of being majo.  There’s a great, chapter-long analysis of majeza in Timothy Mitchell’s Blood Sport: A Social History of Spanish Bullfighting, if you’re interested and can get your hands on it.”

En solidaridad

21 Jul

¡Poneos en marcha! ¿Que adónde vais? La estrella os lo dirá: ¡al sepulcro! ¿Qué vamos a hacer en el camino mientras marchamos? ¿Qué? ¡Luchar! ¡Luchar!, y ¿cómo?

¿Cómo? ¿Tropezáis con uno que miente?, gritarle a la cara: ¡mentira!, y ¡adelante! ¿Tropezáis con uno que roba?, gritarle: ¡ladrón!, y ¡adelante! ¿Tropezáis con uno que dice tonterías, a quien oye toda una muchedumbre con la boca abierta?, gritarles: ¡estúpidos!, y ¡adelante! ¡Adelante siempre!

¿Es que con eso —me dice uno a quien tú conoces y que ansía ser cruzado—, es que con eso se borra la mentira, ni el ladronicio, ni la tontería del mundo? ¿Quién ha dicho que no? La más miserable de todas las miserias, la más repugnante y apestosa argucia de la cobardía es esa de decir que nada se adelanta con denunciar a un ladrón porque otros seguirán robando, que nada se adelanta con decirle en su cara majadero al majadero, porque no por eso la majadería disminuiría en el mundo.

Sí, hay que repetirlo una y mil veces: con que una vez, una sola vez, acabases del todo y para siempre con un solo embustero habríase acabado el embuste de una vez para siempre.

 

Set yourselves to marching then!  Where to?  The star will tell you: to the sepulcher!  What will we do while marching?  What?  Fight!  Fight!  And “How?”

How?  Do you run into a man who lies?  Yell in his face: Liar!  And march on!  You come upon a man who robs?  Yell at him: Thief!  And march on!  Do you come upon one mouthing foolishness, to whom a whole host of fools is listening with their mouths agape?  Howl at all of them: Stupid!  And march on!  March on always!

“And is that how…” asks one who, you know as well, bears a great yearning to join our crusade, “…is that how all lies and all thievery and all foolishness will be erased from the earth?”  Who says that no?  The most miserable of all miseries, the most repugnant and stinking and cowardly of all sophistries is the one that claims that nothing is gained by calling a thief a thief because others will keep stealing, that nothing is to be gained by calling a moron a moron to his face because that will not diminish the world’s stock of morons or fools.

Yes, it must be repeated one and a thousand times: that if you do away, for once and for good, with one single liar, it will be as if you had done away, for once and for good, with falsehood itself.

— Miguel de Unamuno, El sepulcro de Don Quijote (my translation)

And one of their best (below) — “Not enough bread for this much chorizo.” (“pork,” i.e. corruption).

Christ, how I love that land and its people.  Fight on!

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Un Verano en Nueva York*

13 Jul

Queensborough Bridge (photo: Matt Lawson)

I don’t often get the chance to aimlessly stroll around the City much anymore – I mean Manhattan, not that City – but especially in the summertime, when New York is hot like it is today but not unbearably so, so many of it’s sensory delights, especially its human ones, are on display everywhere that if I get the chance, I can’t stop walking, eating, drinking things, and checking people out — the perfect tourist in my own city.

My shrink was unusually cute today and I had a really good time with him and that only added to my kefia and energy.  I walk straight down 5th to St. Patrick’s to give my saludos to St. Anthony, since he’s my most best beloved in the Catholic pantheon, and then turn off 5th to Madison because I can’t deal with any tourists but myself, though I’ve been finding European tourists to be significantly less obnoxious recently – and significantly less, generally — now that they don’t have any money either.

I know where I’m going anyway – at least for starts.  I’m making a bee-line for faloodeh.  Don’t ask me wtf…  I must have been dreaming about it last night and sleep-walking (which I did a lot of as a kid) when I posted that piece about faloodeh:  “This is what I want in this heat: Faloodeh”,  because it was posted at 7:00 a.m., which is the middle of the night for me, and when I got up at my usual time I didn’t even remember having put it up.  But I have faloodeh on the brain right now, man, and am heading straight for the only place in New York where I know I can get it, an Iranian restaurant on 30th St. called Ravagh.

It’s better than the fantasy had been, which usually can’t be said about almost anything in life.  Look at it; it even looks beautiful.  It’s got that perfect color palette that everything Persian does, always pushing the limits of saturation but never becoming gaudy or tacky.

Faloodeh (click)

Ravagh is a pretty good place, at least in the opinion of this non-Iranian.  The appetizers are nothing to get hopped up about, but the kebabs are great, as are the khoresh and the great pomegranate and walnut fesenjun, but I’m also a sucker for any food with fruit and nuts in it, not only taste-wise but ‘cause I’m also historically stimulated by it.  In Persian food we find tastes and combinations that have, certainly, disappeared from Greek tastes (?) (a Neo-Greek can vomit if he finds so much as one raisin in his dolma) but from increasingly flattened and simplified Turkish tastes too.  Iranians, however, are still geniuses, as I said in my trance this morning, at subtle sweet-and-sour combos, at using spices without having to overwhelm you with an indigestible quantity of onion-garlic-ginger canvass on which to use them, like a lot of Indian food does, and for appreciating the taste and aroma of every herb and green thing that this earth can give us.

(It’s also the work-place of one of the most attentive waitresses and the most beautiful Uzbek woman in the world; no exaggeration, this is one of the most gorgeous women in New York, the female equivalent of one of Hafez’ dangerously beautiful young Turkish men: “Zabaan-e-yaar-e-man torki wa man torki nami daanam,”  “The language of my friend is Turkish, but I know no Turkish.”  Ok, that’s not Hafez; it’s Amir Khusrau, but I can’t think of any Hafez right now…)

I head downtown after that to the East Village to see my favorite Hanuman in the city.  Midtown’s blank Wasps, smart-looking Jewish guys and buff borough boys in tight dress shirts and ties start giving way to sweet, ethnically unidentifiable guys with lots of tattoos and scrawny beards.  I pass Mono on the way and see its beautiful, sweaty ham sitting in the window and think: ok, maybe later.

I’m irritated again my Daddy Bloomberg’s traffic lights that tell you how many seconds you have to get across a street before you’re flattened by a flock of taxi cabs.

I see New Yorkers running, frantic, across the street; New Yorkers, as long as I’ve known them, waited till they formed a critical mass on any street corner and simply marched together into the middle of the street, stopping traffic at will.  Now he’s got us running.  I wish again he would just go back to Boston.  It’s already the city that he wants to turn New York into; why is he bothering with us?  They’ll love him there.  Give him a fourth and even fifth term, make him Czar of Massachusetts Bay colony.  Just go.  Go away.

“They save lives!”  Ok.  I don’t know if they do.  But even if they do, a civilization where the saving of life is of consistent and constant greater concern than its quality, where not only do lives need to be saved but all risk — germs in bathrooms, kids getting their knees scuffed — needs to be legislated out of them, a world where, as James Hillman put it: “quantity of life is at all costs more important than quality…” is a civilization we’re not going to be very happy to have lived so long to see.

Anyway, I adore this particular Hanuman that I’m on the way to see because it’s a gigantic brass murti and he’s in his kneeling pose, which I love, because it shows off his big thighs and his great forearms holding his mace over his shoulder and the huge chest he has to have to hold that heart so enormous that God himself and everyone He loves can fit into it.  They never dress him there either, because it’s a difficult pose to dress, so whenever you go he’s always there gleaming in all his bare muscled glory, ready to go to war for Ram and his Kingdom, or for anyone who loves Ramji the way he does.

The problem is that this temple is in the East Village and its whole community is white people, which means it’s really not a Hindu temple or mandir at all but an East Village center for non-stop yoga classes or kundalini workshops, so you’re almost never allowed in for a little bit of darshan and peace and quiet with your god.  I’ve tried to suggest in the past that maybe there should be some more “open” time for someone like me.  But you can’t complain there either because these white “Hindus” have gotten modern Hinduism so frighteningly mixed up in their heads with Buddhism and any other New Age stuff they think they believe in, that if you complain and look even remotely irritated, they look at you sadly like you’re accumulating bad karma and they have no way of helping you.  On top of that, there’s only flower offerings permitted, because – I swear – laddoo and peda and other mithai have “lots of refined sugar and saturated fat” in them, so you can’t even walk away from aarti there (yes, they have aarti every evening at least) with a good piece of prasad and its gratifying sweetness in your mouth.  I really want to ask these people what it is they’re saving their bodies for sometimes; they ever heard of that whole dust to dust bit?

Again, I don’t get to see my Hanuman.

This is the pose of Hanumanji I love most, a little one at a Jackson Heights shop.  Now imagine him nine feet tall and all gleaming brass, like he is at that temple. (click)

I remember the ham at Mono though.

Casa Mono is the restaurant really; it’s part of the Batalli empire but it’s actually a very intimate place with hands down the best Spanish food in New York, and I think as good as anything I’ve ever had in Spain as well.  I always wait, no matter how long it takes, for a seat at the bar by the open kitchen because you get to see the mens’ performance there and it’s good to see men sweat and handle knives and fire and and meat and heat (the night there’s a woman behind there I won’t return, I swear; I’ll just suffer without Mono for the rest of my life**).  You also get to watch the growing status, knowledge and confidence of New York’s Mexican workers there too, their steady rise to the top, the same trajectory we followed decades before, and the way that — not only Mexican hard work — but Mexican wit and playfulness, which almost everyone now understands some of, have become the esprit de corps glue that holds together so many excellent New York restaurants like this one.  There’s often a Mexican or Ecuadorian trainee behind the counter, and a guy who I think is the line’s number two, a sexy tatooed-up Ed Norton look-alike that I really love.  But if you’re especially lucky you’ll get to see head chef Anthony Sasso back there cooking, a guy with a body that looks like he used to be an Olympic diver, who never sweats, and who cooks with such ease and elegance and what Patricia Storace (in her description of turn of the twentieth-century Greek politician Ion Dragoumis) calls “…that most erotic of qualities in a man: the capacity for sustained concentration…,” that it’s hard to take your eyes off of him, and that I, at least, only manage to do so for fear of making a total ass of myself and because I want to let the guy do his job.

But Mono is for a really good dinner when you’re feeling rich and want to drop a lot of money on good wine that Ashley, the least pretentious and most generous sommeliere in the city, will help you out with.  Today I just drop by at their annex next door, Bar Jamon, a place I also love, though if you don’t catch it at the beginning or end of the shift it’s always torturously crowded.

(It’s enough I haven’t given these places aliases; I’m not telling where they are on top of it; not everyone deserves to know.)

Jose is there today.  Great!  A Spaniard.  After being sweetly told to go away at the gringo ashram because they were cleaning their chakras or something, I need an aggressive welcome and from a people who aren’t afraid of a little aggression.  Jose always makes me happy because he’s a super-majo kid from Zaragoza in Aragon.  Majeza is a very Spanish term that encompasses such a complex of qualities that it’s difficult to explain, especially in English, which is tragically lacking in a comparable term, as its speakers (aside from the Irish) are in most of its qualities.  It means openness and frankness and humour and swagger; it means being hospitable without being in anyway servile; it means being able to put away copious amounts of wine and pig meat; being friendly and spirited and generous while always maintaining a kind of stylish dignity and flair; it partakes of some of the qualities of Greek and Turkish leventeia in that sense; in fact, it’s a word with a certain undoubtable Balkanness about it.  Soon after the term appeared in, I think, the late eighteenth-century, working-class barrios of Madrid, it almost immediately became associated during the Napoleonic Wars with the city’s street kids, who terrified the French with their suicidal bravery, so it probably originally implied a quickness to pull a knife too and no squeamishness about seeing a little bit of your own blood shed as well.  That doesn’t apply anymore, though the ferocity into which demonstrations in Madrid have descended these days makes you think twice about that; I’m proud of the angry tenacity of Spanish protests, mashallah; don’t know what they’ll accomplish but it’s good to know Spaniards can still be scary; that anger has become such a stigmatized, pathologized emotion in our civilization (“You know…I think you have a lot of anger…”) is partly what’s let banks and governments get away with what they have over the past few decades and generally has brought us to the civilizational crisis we find ourselves in.  No, it’s not the other way around.  In any event, courage is still certainly an implied element of being majo.  There’s a great, chapter-long analysis of majeza in Timothy Mitchell’s Blood Sport: A Social History of Spanish Bullfighting, if you’re interested and can get your hands on it.

blood

Jose’s bearing, humour and way of talking are the epitome of majete; I’m glad to see him, I’m hot, my feet hurt (“erkekler…pabucim sikiyor…”) and I ask him for a glass of anything cold and white.  He immediately comes up with a great Albarino, a Galician wine I usually don’t like but this particular one is beautiful.  I think of a gorgeous woman I was in love with a few years ago with blue-emerald eyes so intense they looked fake (actually her parents were Canarian – she just grew up in Santiago — so those eyes were probably Berber and certainly not Galician); she was beautiful, a good kid, and a little nuts – but beautiful.

“So a Greek and a Spaniard get together,” the joke goes — and of course these days they compare notes on how fucked up their respective countries have become.  I tell Jose that I think Spain is salvageable but that Greece seems in danger of just slipping off of the face of the earth at some point soon.  He’s not so confident.  He says people in Spain are “learning to be poor again,” getting used to a life with “un plato de alubias” — a plate of beans — a proverbial Spanish expression for just-bare-subsistence poverty.  He’s probably around thirty and he says bluntly that his generation in Spain is destroyed; that they’re going to hit their late thirties and early forties without any job experience and that unless you’ve got family money, your only option is emigration, like “old-time Gallegos” we both say in sync.  (Galicians in Spain are like Epirotes in Greece, the archetypically emigrating region, so much so that in much of Latin America all Spaniards used to be collectively referred to as “Gallegos.”)

My heart goes out to him and I respect his straight-eyed stoicism and I think he’ll be ok because he seems strong.  As hard as I try, though, my heart doesn’t go out to Greeks of his generation nor do I respect them.  I think they’re cry-babies who would be scared shitless – or worse, think it beneath them — to work in a bar in New York the way Jose does and that they deserve – richly — to relearn the cultural lessons of emigration and being poor again.  Three decades of illusory prosperity created an unbearable type of human being in Greece, a nouveau-riche culture of entitled provincials, cold, petty snobs who are snobs the way only the truly provincial can be – and I’m talking about Athens more than the provinces.  (Athens is a city I genuinely love, but it probably ranks first in the world in thinking itself more sophisticated than it really is.)  (Plus — I’m always confused a little by Cypriots, who arguably enjoyed a more solid prosperity for a longer time but never became so insufferable, and who all Athenians are always mercilessly condescending towards: incessantly mocking their clannishness, their still healthy respect for Church tradition, the beautiful musicality of Cypriot dialect.)  I’m pained by the genuinely poor and the old and the sick and the heroin addicts who are suffering and dying in Greece, and murderously angry at Frau Merkel (“murderously”…you can quote me; I think she’s a criminal and should be gone after), who needs to pay banks back and dresses it up as one of her daddy’s Lutheran sermons.  But that urban, middle-to-upper-middle-class, twenty-five to forty-five-year-old demographic in Greece…they can just go back to washing dishes in Chicago again like our grandfathers did as far as I care.  Let ‘em start from scratch; see what kind of culture they can come up with this time.

(As I listen to Jose I remember that the terrifying Catalan Company, who are still a by-word for monsters and boogey-men in parts of the Balkans — “…like Catalani and the Devil,” Albanians say….Albanians — weren’t actually Catalanes at all, but savage Aragones highlanders: Jose’s ancestors. 

The “Companyia Catalana d’Orient,” were a bunch of murderous, mercenary nut-jobs, the Blackwater of their day (I forget what Blackwater is called today) that had started off fighting in the Reconquista in Spain.  But like the Greek-Arab Akritai-Ghazi of the Anatolian frontier, they were a mixed bag, originally mostly Arab-speaking Almogavars, an Arab word meaning “scout,” the “Muslims” eating pork and downing wine like good Iberians, the “Christians” proud that they raped nuns, looted monasteries and occasionally threatened the Pope.  The only things these guys were loyal to were killing, looting and each other, in that order.  This is their hymn:

    Aur! Aur! Desperta ferro!

    Deus aia!

    Veyentnos sols venir, los pobles ja flamejen:

    veyentnos sols passar, son bech los corbs netejen.

    La guerra y lo saqueig, no hi ha mellors plahers.

    Avant, almugavers! Que avisin als fossers!

    La veu del somatent nos crida ja a la guerra.

    Fadigues, plujes, neus, calors resistirem,

    y si’ns abat la sòn, pendrèra per llit la terra,

    y si’ns rendeix la fam carn crua menjarem!

        Desperta ferro! Avant! Depressa com lo llamp

        cayèm sobre son camp!

        Almugavers, avant! Anem allí a fer carn!

        Les feres tenen fam!

Listen! listen! Wake up, O iron! Help us God!…Just seeing us coming the villages are already ablaze. Just seeing us passing the crows are wiping their beaks. War and plunder, there are no greater pleasures. Forward Almogavars! Let them call the gravediggers! The voice of the somatent is calling us to war. Weariness, rains, snow and heat we shall endure. And if sleep overtakes us, we will use the earth as our bed. And if we get hungry, we shall eat raw meat. Wake up, O iron! Forward! Fast as the lightning let us fall over their camp! Forward Almogavars! Let us go there to make flesh, the wild beasts are hungry!

Boy, people don’t like war like they used to, do they?  Even Marine chants aren’t this hard-core.  Or do they?  And it’s just shape-shifted into something else?

I think they were actually involved in one of the Crusades and then at one point one of our last moronic emperors had the brilliant idea of inviting them as mercenaries to help fight off the Ottomans.  What scheming idiots, except for poor, tragic Constantine, the Palaiologoi were — and poor Kyr Gianne Cantacouzino, so beloved by Cavafy, trying to hold together the mess they created.  And they weren’t even good schemers, which is one thing Greeks usually do well. Even Constantine tried to interfere in the succession of Mehmet II in a pathetic way that had worked before but by that point the Turks were on to them already.  He sent a delegation to Edirne to remind the new Sultan’s vezir that they held Mehmet’s brother Orhan as a guest in Constantinople, a veiled threat of provoking another succession civil war among the Ottomans, which wasn’t hard to do given the brutally absolutist methods Ottoman succession practices involved.  I always loved the balling-out the Greek diplomats got from Halil, Mehmet’s vizier:

“You stupid Greeks, I have had enough of your devious ways.  The late Sultan was a lenient and conscientious friend to you.  The present Sultan is not of the same mind.  If Constantine eludes his bold and imperious grasp, it will be only because God continues to overlook your cunning and wicked schemes.  You are fools to think you frighten us with your fantasies, and that when the ink on our treaty is barely dry.  We are not children without strength or reason.  If you think you can start something, do so… All that you will achieve is to lose what little you still have.”

This is what they were left with in 1400.  At the time of the above event, which was fifty years later, they had lost Salonica too and almost all of the Thracian hinterlands of C-town itself.  But it was still “The Empire of the Romans.”

As for the Aragoneses the century before, they succeeded in inflicting some damage on the Ottomans at first, but had soon attracted Turkic and Greek freelancers into their ranks and of course went on a decade-long plundering spree in both Byzantine and Ottoman lands, including Mount Athos, where no Catalan was allowed to enter until recently, and only upon payment of reparations by the government of Catalonia; those monks have Byzantine memories, man.  After devastating the countryside of what remained of the Byzantine empire, they established a Duchy for themselves at Athens by taking it from some other Frangoi, which was eventually absorbed by the Ottomans, of course, though the King of Spain still carries the title, “Duke of Athens,” which the Spanish Crown inherited through the Kingdom of Aragon.)

I snap out of my historic daydreaming and pay for my Albarino and my incredibly expensive plate of ham, which was totally worth it.  It was Iberico ham from pata negra pigs from Extremadura that eat free-range, mostly acorns, so the meat is grained with a velvety fat that has an incredibly nutty taste to it and a texture unlike any other kind of pork fat.  It wasn’t allowed into the U.S. until recently because the F.D.A. or whoever had concerns about the health standards under which the pigs were raised, like they’re worried about raw milk cheeses and I don’t know what else.  I think of how irritated I get when I have to fill out an American customs form when I’m coming to the U.S. and I get to that question about whether I have any agricultural products on me.  I’m like: “Are you serious, United States of America?  Are you really asking me this question?  You?  The origin of all the plastic, poisonous, carcinogenic garbage food on the planet?  You’re really worried about two lemons from a family orchard or some sausages I might have with me and the havoc they’re going to wreak on America’s ecosystem and agriculture?  Really?”

Jamon Iberico at Mono (click)

I wish Jose well, hope to have enough money to see him again soon because I’m broke these days, and head for the N back to Queens.  I expect more stimulation on the subway and am not disappointed.  But the first thing I notice is a great drawing, by an artist whose name I’m too stupid to note, that covers the entire ad space above the bench opposite me.  It’s a Bemelman-like drawing of New Yorkers on a subway bench, like the one we’re all sitting on and they’ve got it posted on both sides of the car, in fact.

I immediately do a double-take because it looks like two of the characters in the drawing are two little Dropolitisses, women from my father’s villages in southern Albania, with their distinctive white headdresses, like my grandmother here in the last photo we have of her.  (click on all)

Then I look closer and notice their sneakers and schoolbags and realize they’re two Muslim high school girls sharing an IPad.  I smile, because the implications of and reasons for confusing the two are so obviously telling.

On the bench below the drawing are two big, sun-burnt Irish construction workers, in cut-off jeans and work-boots, t-shirts with dried sweat stains on them, who are so exhausted that they are falling asleep on each other.  Somehow, though, I know they’re gonna go for a pint when they get off the train, no matter how exhausted.  At the other end are three lanky, Bosnian giants, who have to keep their legs doubled up against their midsections practically to keep them from stretching across the whole subway car.  I stare at them with a dumb unconscious stare, listening to the subtle tonality of Serbo-Croatian (or “Bosnian”), as they goof around with each other, and I think they’d be fun to drink with – if they drink (they probably drink…).  Then suddenly the image of all that manhood and youth decomposing and scattered around the ground in pieces flashes before my eyes (I’ve had Srebrenica on the brain for the past few days too, not just faloodeh), and I snap out of it.

 

In the middle of these two bunches of heavy-weights is a super-elegant Pakistani kid, with a white-stitched topi on his head, with the v-shaped opening that Sindhi topis have though I don’t know where he’s from, and a carefully trimmed beard that’s always a sign of observant-but-not-nuts to me.  He’s got cool blue suede Adidas on and perfectly ripped jeans so you can see the hair against the color of his skin on his thighs and shins.  He’s got a worn wooden tespih wound around his left wrist along with a thick leather wrist-band and about half a dozen multi-color, tie-on bracelets that could’ve been bought on the beach in Cancun on his right.  But on top of it all he’s wearing a stunningly beautiful, blindingly white, short-length kurta, completely unbuttoned down to the middle of his chest, with a dense white-on-white chikan-like embroidery around the collar and button panels that even from across the subway car I can tell is exquisite (my mom taught me to recognize good needlework; she was a very skilled embroiderer herself).  I know this simple summer kurta and its kind of embroidery can cost as much as a good sherwani, and I wonder where he’s going or coming from to be wearing such an expensive piece of clothing.  He’s also got his sunglasses balanced behind the back of his head, and they don’t slide off during the whole subway ride.  This is Desi majeza.  He’s a sight.  I wonder if they’ve found a suitable girl for him yet, or if he’s even going to tolerate family choices in that kind of thing; see, that’s the thing; his whole get-up and attitude make it impossible to gauge exactly how “traditional” he is, a frequent dilemma in a city where the cultural self is so malleable, and which – aside from how handsome he is – is what makes him so fascinating to look at.  He could be the perfect obedient Muslim son; he could be a D.J. somewhere or a dancer regular at Bhangra Basement at S.O.B.’s or an ecstasy dealer, or all or any combination of those.  I bet he drinks.  I bet he fasts for Ramazan though.  I then start wondering what Whitman, who loved the men of New York so deeply: “manners free and superbopen voices–hospitalitythe most courageous and friendly young men…” would have done with the material New York would have to offer him these days.  He wrote with such passion of a totally white city; he might’ve been overwhelmed by this one.

I like betting to myself where people are going to get off the subway based on sociological info, and, of course, the Irish guys and the Pakistani get off at Queensborough Plaza to take the 7 train, the Irish guys to Sunnyside or Woodside, the cool Pakistani kid to Jackson Heights or Elmhurst.  And sure enough the Bosnians follow me to Astoria.  I think to myself that I should get a camera and a business card for this blog so I look semi-professional and not like a freak asking people if I can take their picture with my lame Blackberry.

The N train (photo: Matt Lawson)

In Astoria I catch the end of vespers at Hagia Eirene.  This is a church that used to be the territory of fundamentalist, Old Calendar, separatist crazies but has rejoined the flock on the condition that it was granted monastic status (and I have no idea what that means).  But it has somehow got its hands on a great bunch of cantors and priests who really know what they’re doing.  I’m impressed.  I brought friends here for the Resurrection this year and for the first time I wasn’t embarrassed.  If I hadn’t invited them back home afterwards I would have stayed for the Canon.  Only one cantor now at vespers but he’s marvelous and the lighting is right and the priest’s bearing appropriately imperial.  It’s incredibly heartening to see our civilization’s greatest achievement — which is not what the Frangoi taught us about Sophocles or Pericles or some half-baked knowledge of Plato or a dumb hard-on about the Elgin marbles or the word “Macedonia,” but this, the rite and music and poetry and theatre of the Church – performed with the elegance and dignity that it deserves.

From the wall paintings at Hagia Eirene: St. Demetrius above, my patron saint, and his best army buddy, St. Nestor, below, executed together by the Emperor Maximian in Salonica in 306 A.D., because Nestor, with Dimitri’s blessing, killed the Emperor’s favorite gladiator in the arena.  Nestor was beheaded; Dimitri run through with lances — a story.  (Click)

I end up back in Sunnyside, which has become a heavily Turkish neighborhood in recent years.  The amazing thing is what a complete range of Turkish society the community consists of.  Every kind of Turk: from gorgeous young Istanbullu girls (who have disconcertingly started to destroy their beautiful faces with bad nose jobs, like Iranian girls), to old women in flowered salvar squatting outside on the steps of the neighborhood’s Art Deco apartment buildings, picking through lentils in a big sini.  On the corners are Turkish guys hanging out or you pass one every few yards as you walk down the street (“…icim sikiliyor”) and once again I curse the fact that “man torki na midaanam.”

Ah, here’s some Hafez:

“I am the slave of the eyes of that Turk who, in his sweet drunken sleep,

Has a canopy of musky eyebrows over the adorned rose-bed of his face.”

(Sorry I don’t know the Farsi.)

 Of course these guys don’t look like Hafez’ Turk would have, don’t have the eyes he would have, nor do they look like the Uzbek beauty that served me my faloodeh earlier in the afternoon.  These are “our Turks” and though quite a few do, the majority don’t bear much resemblance to their Turkic forebears anymore.  I said that once in a conversation with some Greeks – “our Turks” – to distinguish the inhabitants of Turkey from Central Asian peoples (I don’t know what we were talking about that making that distinction would have been necessary) and I got a blank stare from everybody.  But after a brief pause I realized that it felt good to say, that it was heart-warming to say: “our Turks.”  Plus, anything like that I might say that pisses off Greeks gives me a thrill that can’t be described.

I was once so mad for a Turkish guy from Sunnyside years ago that I learned how to write: “___________, you’re beautiful” in Ottoman script and graffitied it all over the neighborhood.  I thought it would be like a coded love-letter from his ancestral past and that somehow, some day, God would see to it that it were decoded for him.  Thank God that I don’t think He ever did because today I’m mortified to even remember that I did something like that — not that it’s exactly out of character.  I have much to be mortified over; and it takes much longer than you think to convert humiliating regrets into “ah-youth” nostalgia.  And I wasn’t so young either.  It’s just this guy was a knock-out.  He’d walk into a bar and my knees would get shaky; I’d have to be trashed to talk to him without stuttering.  I had to let it out somehow or I would’ve died.

I drop into my favorite Irish pub on Queens Boulevard, for a beer and to wait for a friend and, sure enough, it’s full of dusty, sweaty construction workers who couldn’t go home without a pint.  Despite the influx of Turks and Greeks and Roumanians and Armenians (it’s one of the mysteries of New York immigration that peoples who can’t stand each other back home choose to settle in the same neighborhoods when they get here), Sunnyside is still one of the city’s hard-core Irish neighborhoods, with a population of both old-time Irish-Americans and young Irish kids.  These last had stopped coming for a while, but now have sadly started again, afflicted by the eternal curse of this beautiful, heroic people.  But they, for sure, are tough enough for anything.  When you talk to them about things in Ireland, they’re attitude is basically: “Ah…young folks leaving again…things were good for a while, ya know, and now we’re back to the same old….cheers…”

The 7 train in Sunnyside.  The only attempt ever made in New York to make an elevated train attractive.  (click)

There was a genre of Ottoman literature known as the “shehrengiz,” the “shehrashub” in its Farsi prototype, which was basically a tour of a particular city cataloguing in detail all its beautiful people: men and women, but mostly young men — echoes of Whitman again.  Walter Andrews and Mehmet Kalpakli in their fascinating and highly idiosyncratic The Age of Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society translate the term as “city-thriller” or “city-disturber.”  One of the longest extant ones is about Gumulcine oddly enough (Komotene), ironic because the only thing that distinguishes modern Gumulcine from any miserable northern Greek city and makes it interesting and quite beautiful is its Turkish population.  People have called this corner of Greece the last remaining part of the Ottoman Empire and it truly feels that way.  The Turkish marketplace there is particularly fascinating, because of its abundance of coffeehouses and borekcidika, but also because of the beautiful traditional jewelry that’s still made in the city and sold in its numerous shops.  This isn’t the mass-produced crap of Jiannena; this is stuff of real artistry.  Wonder what the boys who worked in its sixteenth-century jewelry workshops looked like; they were obviously of high poetic caliber.

(Once when I was in Komotene I had spent the morning in the Turkish market neighborhood and later on, for some reason, walked back through its streets during siesta time, when all the shops were shuttered.  I saw that the iron gate of every single shop in the marketplace had “1955” graffitied on it, the year of the anti-Greek riots in Istanbul – see one of my first posts “The Name of this Blog”.  I thought it was the creepiest, most cowardly kind of nationalist intimidation that I’d ever seen; it still turns my stomach to remember it.)

Gumulcine

One more beer as it starts getting dark.  Today I lived my own New York shehrengiz.  Sorry for the rambling length of this post, or if any part of it was embarrassingly personal; feel for me.  I felt compelled to write it — my prose shehrengiz.  It started with the faloodeh.  It’s what a hot summer day in New York can do to you.

I am he that aches with amorous love;

Does the earth gravitate? does not all matter, aching,

         attract all matter?

So the body of me to all I meet or know.

— Walt Whitman

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*The name of this entry is the name of one of the all-time greatest hits of the legendary Puerto Rican salsa band, El Gran Combo, “Un Verano en Nueva York” , “A Summer in New York:”  “If you want to have fun, full of enchantment and delight, all you have to do is live a summer in New York.”  Of course, given how hellish summer in New York can be, especially for inner-city residents, especially back in 1970, I always had this weird suspicion that this song was some kind of sick joke…

**Of course as fate would have it — or I must’ve insulted some goddess, Artemis, or Durga Ma probably — a couple of months after I wrote this there was suddenly a woman behind the kitchen bar at Mono and of course she’s great and of course I keep going.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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