Another exhausting academic year went by (not without some extremely pleasurable victories against the forces of evil), and I have now begun that precious periodic institutional observance that keeps university faculty from having to be institutionalized: sabbatical! This time it’s only one semester, and although there are still six months to go I already feel like I’m running out of time. But I will not complain.
The year’s end was marked, in what is now a tradition, by a 2-dozen oyster lunch extravaganza with Miss R at Eats on Lex (tip: they always have Groupons available–we each buy one for our own dozen!)
followed by checking out the Metropolitan Museum’s latest Costume Institute exhibition.
Spring 2016’s show, Manus X Machina, was not as spectacular as previous ones like 2011’s Alexander McQueen retrospective, or as beautifully classic as the ones on mourning fashions or couturier Charles James (both 2014), but it did feature stunning clothes made through either traditional artisanal methods or ultramodern technology (the game was to try to identify which before reading the descriptions–not always easy). We generally found the older handmade fashions most beautiful whereas the modern stuff included, well, dresses made of bird heads and drinking straws. It’s hard to remember how many times I remarked on the obvious impossibility of sitting while wearing this or that postmodern outfit, but was nevertheless partial to Hussein Chalayan’s fiberglass Floating Dress, which not only has the advantage of coming with its own hourglass figure, but is (alas!) WHEELED. You obviously can’t sit in it either (unless it has a little bench inside), but it saves you the hassle of having to walk in heels. I’m buying it the moment he adds a stair-climbing feature. (You can see the exhibit through August 14.)
So that was that and then I left New York, not without grudgingly saying goodbye to a lovely lad who may or may not be waiting at the quay, in French Lieutenant’s Woman style, when I return (I hope he is). As solace to my grief, I was greeted in Barcelona by my lovely lad from last summer Mr. P, who did weather the disagreeable easterly winds for a year (💕). I may have found the secret to happiness in my old age.
Also waiting for me at the quay were dearest Messrs. S and A, who kindly helped me get settled in (an ongoing process). This year’s FABULOUS digs belong to Miss L, who exchanged her smaller Gràcia pied-à-terre for a small two-bedroom and is generously letting me rent it although she’s barely had the opportunity to enjoy it herself. The apartment is perfect save for the disciplined aspiring flutist next door–but I did live through an aspiring jazz drummer in my last flat. Miss L has tastefully renovated the place with some typical Barcelona architectural elements like the volta catalana and recovered antique hydraulic floor tile. Also it has the most delicious shower in town–wonderful rainfall showerhead plus handheld, and I swear the space is large enough for a crowd (party!).
Eixample Dreta is yet a new neighborhood for me–I don’t know how, after nearly thirty apartments in Barcelona over the course of as many years, I manage to always end up in a different part of what is actually a fairly small city. Unlike my recent ‘hoods in Ciutat Vella, the Barri Gòtic and Sant Antoni/Raval, Eixample Dreta is a definitely upscale, stately modernista district. As is readily apparent in the stately modernista entrance to my Passeig Sant Joan building, which never fails to put me in a good mood as I get into the tardis-like elevator.
It’s definitely less “happening” around here than downtown, but hey, I’m getting ready to WORK. The plan is to take advantage of these blissfully student-free months to advance my (still possibly posthumous) third book, develop one or two new courses, work on a couple of papers. (And write a couple of blog posts when there are voyages or notable vicissitudes!)
The first paper had to be churned out during my very first week in Barcelona, as I was due to present it at the First Annual Meeting of the International Association for Polysystem Studies–an exciting new project undertaken by collaborators whose work has been interrelated for well over twenty years (and also an excellent excuse to go to Iceland).
The symposium, in honor of my Most Beloved Mentor-Guru Itamar Even-Zohar,
was actually quite interesting, featuring thirteen scholars from nine countries (Iceland, Israel, Italy, Hong Kong, Netherlands, Turkey, Brazil, Spain, and the US) and fields ranging from literature/translation studies to history to economics. All were analyzing different types of culture–from national to corporate–from a common set of parameters based on the Polysystem Theory first developed by Even-Zohar and interdisciplinary methodologies following the model of Tel Aviv University’s Unit for Culture Research. My own paper focused on Puerto Rico’s present economic and political situation, and all these wise doctors from all corners of the globe coincided in concluding that it is hopeless and there is no solution.
The meeting took place in the remote “town” of Reykholt. The quotation marks speak to the fact that there seems to be nothing there but our venue: Snorrastofa, a center devoted to medieval culture located on the former homestead of twelfth-century Law Speaker, historian, and saga writer (or saga-appropriating patron, as a colleague argued) Snorri Sturluson. Snorri was relaxing in his geothermal pool, Snorralaug (where we were not allowed to dip, even though it seems to have been possible until not long ago),
when enemy chieftains sent by the King of Norway after some nasty treason business chased him out into his cellar and axe-murdered him. Because his last words were presumably “Eigi skal höggva!” (Don’t strike!), he is by all accounts remembered as much for dying in fear as for being an Icelandic founding father:
I think Jorge Luis Borges phrased it more poetically, though.
Snorri Sturluson (1179 – 1241)
You, who left to posterity an unsparing
Tribal mythology of ice and flame,
You, who made fast in words the violent fame
Of your forebears, their ruthlessness and daring,
Were stunned to feel, as the mythic swords towered
Over you one evening, your insides churning,
And in that trembling dusk that bides no morning
It was revealed to you you were a coward.
Now in the Iceland night the heavy seas
Tower and plunge in the salt gale. Your cell
Is under siege. You have drained to the lees
A shame never to be forgotten. Now
The sword is falling above your pallid brow
As in your book repeatedly it fell.
(I still heretically think Borges was a terrible poet, but the Spanish original here is a little less godawful.)
At Reykholt I got to stay in Nes Guesthouse, a typical Icelandic farm lodging I would have enjoyed more if I liked golf (it has a course) instead of large beds and private bathrooms. The most remarkable thing about it was the inkeeper, who looked exactly as I imagine Rip Van Winkle, and I’m pretty sure we woke him up from a twenty-year sleep (but this may be the wrong folklore tradition). And I had every meal at the restaurant in Fosshotel, which offered only two entree options–cod or lamb–but they were both fresh and cooked to perfection.
Reykholt is also, as I mentioned, remote: as in, not that far from Reykjavik but virtually unreachable except in your own rental car. Hence, I drove in Europe FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, taking care not to run over any sheep as the “How to Drive in Iceland” brochure said I’d have to pay for it if I broke it (however, no native Icelanders seem to know how much a sheep is worth).
Luckily, my friend and colleague Miss O was available as co-pilot (I would have been too chicken to drive on my own) and, once the symposium was over, to accompany me on a couple of exploration days guided by our untrustworthy GPS, Bergur (whom we named for the somewhat more helpful Director of Snorrastofa, unbeknownst to him). Like all males in a car, Bergur was fond of issuing stern orders, and you could almost see him rolling his eyes when instead we followed the competing recommendations of the (unnamed) female in my TomTom phone app. But this had to be done, as he was also fond of declaring “You Have Reached Your Destination” when we were obviously not anywhere near not just our destination but any other human settlement. We surmised that, being Icelandic, perhaps he could see things that were invisible to us, and lo and behold, Miss O: we were right! Apparently a not-totally-insignificant number of Icelanders (54% according to a 1998 poll) believe in huldufolk or invisible elves, who have their own invisible towns and get really upset when the government tries to build roads through them (and yes, civic-minded elves that they are, sometimes “seers” have convinced them to relocate).
So Bergur, as it turns out, was just trying to show us the real Iceland, because like so many of his compatriots he has joined the increasingly massive tourism industry: in 2011, when I fist traveled there, Iceland had 565,000 visitors; in 2015, 1,289,140 (the country’s current total population is 331,862). But since I sadly missed all the elf dwellings in his Huldufolk Tour, in the second part of this post I’ll have to tell you only about the sights I did catch.
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