Category Archives: USA

Luxury food

paella

I often ask my students, when teaching on the topic of culture, if, in their opinion, paella started originally as a dish of the poor or the rich. Having seen paella as one of the most expensive options on the menus of expensive restaurants, they usually say that paella must have been an invention for the table of the wealthy. After all, shrimp and clams, mandatory for paella, are deluxe ingredients.

But not when the dish was first created. Fish and seafood in general was cheap food, since it didn’t need land to be farmed. It grew free and plentiful, with just labor necessary to be harvested – and that was cheap. In fact, paella is based on the concept of “small pieces of different meats and veggies, combined with rice”, which in practice means “any kind of meat, mixed together in rice”:  the perfect way to use leftovers. In most cases, paella was the Spanish casserole in which leftovers from yesterday or from the master’s table were put together to make a hearty meal. Continue reading

A Museum of Odds and the concept of museums

There is a Ripley’s Believe it or Not odditorium some 20 minutes from where I live – an establishment that displays a collection of bizarre items, ranging from a two-headed calf to real human shrunken heads to the replica of a tree in which a hurricane threw a sleeping baby that remained unharmed and still sleeping, some 50 years ago. Robert Ripley was a cartoonist and an adventurer, as well as self-proclaimed “amateur anthropologist” who presented such items in his radio show and newspaper career and later founded a chain of museums of odds where they were to be displayed.

Surprisingly, this visit gave me an amazing portion of food for thought. To be sure, these are artifacts that you most likely know about – just like in a regular museum. They are not necessarily all authentic items, but isn’t this also valid for usual museums, too? The concept of a museum is a physical space where you go to commune with history, to be intellectually reminded of certain events or phenomena, to be emotionally stimulated by your physical contact with the material expression of a certain idea and understand it at another level.  Continue reading

Would you choose to live a war?

The most logical answer would be “no”, of course. But there are hundreds of occasions in which thousands of people decide to relive wars – and their potential PTSDs – on purpose. Reenactments, for example, so popular in the US.

On one hand, they are part of the trend of romanticizing and nostalgizing the past, just as the reenactments of other, not so traumatic events and activities, like Renaissance fairs and heritage villages, replicas of everyday life of years past. You get a hands-on, or rather eyes-on, play-on education of what the past actually was. What it meant to be witnessing it.

I can understand that. We’ve got some wars that are already far enough in the past for us to accept as part of our national mythology: Revolutionary war, Civil War, Spanish-American war reenactments and even more obscure cowboy gun battles that definitely qualify as non-traumatic reproduction of history snippets. But it’s different when the war in question is so close in time and emotional connection to us like WWII.  Even if we’ve settled into our collective interpretation of such a war, reliving it unsettles us. Continue reading

Diamonds in My Pocket and the art of living cross-culturally

I’ve often wondered, what would be the most powerful cross-cultural  immersion situation one could ask for? What daily life activity could give you a taste of another culture – and a jolt of culture clash – in the most effective experiential way? Shopping in a foreign country? Sharing a meal with strangers? Falling in love? What could be the single most important step you could recommend to someone to get acquainted with a culture?

While I was reading the absolutely delicious Diamonds in My Pocket by Amanda Kovattana I finally realized what this activity most certainly is. Yes, living with a family with a different cultural background, but more specifically having someone from a different culture have a say in organizing your personal space: tidying your room putting everything in order; with a concept coming from a different culture. But who publishes guides detailing how space is organized in foreign countries? You have to either experience it or decipher it in literary texts, to find those hidden diamonds where they are least expected to be. Diamonds in My Pocket is one of the most honest and culturally illuminating books I’ve read recently and I firmly believe the most powerful reason for that are the rich descriptions of interiors loaded with cultural revelations. Continue reading

Small towns on both sides of the Atlantic

It seems that every summer I get new inspiration for a comparison between American and European lifestyles. It must be my vacation in Europe that inspires me to state the obvious. But how can you resist visually absorbing the beauty of European small towns? Falling in love with them? Here is an Italian town, population 50,000, that’s so vibrant and livable that makes me consider how an American small town would compare to it.

Let’s start with the basics: this town doesn’t seem to be affected by any kind of economic crisis, much less a housing one. People seem happy and connected, public spaces are lively and, this being Italy, everything is beautiful. But that’s a bonus that comes with decades if not centuries of historical building preservation 🙂 . Continue reading

Nothing More and Travelers & Magicians between here and there

Speaking of feeling foreign and the unbearable tension between your wings and your roots, here are two films that deal with the conflicted desire to leave your native land. Their plots are almost a mirror reflection of each other yet they offer the same inspiration to follow your dreams.  But you know, dreams can be a twisted, unreal reality.

Nothing More (Juan Carlos Cremata, Cuba, 2001). Imagine Cuba, where bureaucracy is a tool for control and where vocal dissatisfaction with life is not allowed.  Clara, a young postal employee has languished for years, waiting for her green card so that she can join her parents in Miami.  But her mother’s letters bring her both hope and despair of the unknown. Continue reading

5 things that are common in Europe but (almost) inexistent in the USA

These are simple things that may seem insignificant and probably won’t make anyone change their place of residence just based on their existence. But they are indicative of bigger societal differences in how people live their lives .

Commuter bikes

Biking is a popular pastime in the USA. But it’s an activity similar to jogging, power walking, or weight lifting. It’s a great way to exercise that also lets you enjoy spectacular views along scenic roads. People don’t use it to run errands, get themselves from A to B or anything practical. The result is that those who bike regularly are committed and good at it. But they are also very few. Biking is a financial investment and significant time commitment. Continue reading

Blogs for Spanish teachers

blogs

If you are a language teacher, you are most probably a passionate ambassador of the culture you represent to your students, in the classroom and outside. But even though Spanish is so ubiquitous in the USA and resources are abundant, Spanish and bilingual teachers often say they don’t have the time to stay connected with the language and culture they love. Just the research about news, keeping up with current events and cultural information can be time consuming.

If you are someone interested in Spanish, Latin American and US Latino culture, here are three other blogs I write that will help you stay in touch and learn more. And they save you time researching about literature, cinema and art of the Spanish-speaking world. Posts are monthly and discuss films, art and newly published and classic stories, poems and also children’s books by Spanish-speaking authors. Continue reading

Never on Sunday’s civilization clash

neveronsundayA friend of mine recommended the 1960 classic Never on Sunday (directed by Jules Dassin, starring Melina Mercouri) as the film that introduced foreign cinema to the larger American audience. In fact, it won several Academy Awards nominations and was a huge success. It also caused uproar in Hollywood with the fact that a foreign film, featuring a prostitute as the protagonist, would be so highly acclaimed. According to one source, it “kicked off the foreign film rage” in the US.

It is ironic though that this film would be such a high icon for foreignness. It is a subtle, but non-ambiguous commentary on the futility and the folly of the American civilizing project. With the United States emerging as not just the most powerful world leader in the West, but also the moral and cultural standard bearer after World War II, this film questions its claim as a new civilizing model. And it is funny that this is achieved through the old Pygmalion narrative, in which a cultured man (an American) tries to educate a lower class woman (in this case, a Greek prostitute) to give her new life with a new social status. Continue reading

Love, today, as any other day

spicesIt’s a beautiful day today in Chronotopia. That’s the day when She will put on a gorgeous white dress and meet her Beloved, and they will get married, as they have dreamed for so long. But they won’t be alone in their celebration of love. They will be joined by ten thousand other couples on the city square. You see, all of them will be married at the same time and all will pronounce their vows together, in a chorus. That’s because today is the Day of Love in Chronotopia. It’s the official day when couples declare their love for each other, so all have to get married on that day. As an added bonus, they’ll also have their anniversary on that same day. How romantic, right? Continue reading

What’s so wrong with Starbucks?

starbucksI know many people around here who are not happy with Starbucks. They like to criticize it while still patronizing it. Well, I think Starbucks is the wrong target for the socially, culturally and aesthetically sensitive crowd. I don’t find much wrong with Starbucks, actually I like it.

Some people say it is expensive, but there are so many other overpriced indulgences in the world that cost much more. Plus, a simple solo espresso at Starbucks is actually dirt cheap.

Others say what’s wrong is that it is a chain. They criticize the concept of chainness itself. Yes, but wrong as it is, Starbucks’s chainness introduces it in more places in the US without actually forcing the local residents to buy it. Continue reading

The Mexican experience, interpreted through food

Gin Fizz

Photo: Gin Fizz

In Mexican culture, you don’t just eat, you experience life through food. So, it is obligatory that you experience it communally, but if you don’t cook Mexican at home and you resort to restaurant ersatz, you need assistance to recreate the communality. Mexican restaurants in the USA are never just places to eat your vegetables and R&B (rice and beans, for those who wonder what role rhythm & blues has to play in a restaurant menu). They are your local Mexican agora where, besides the get-together, debate and exchange, you also get to eat. Quietly, Mexico is colonizing the USA under the guise of providing a safe space to enjoy chicken fajitas and mole, because the space thusly created in those restaurants is simply a recreation of Mexican space, with all the details: the colorful plazas, the sunlit streets, the noises and angles of city life itself. Continue reading