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domingo, 21 de febrero de 2016

Berlinale 2016 (2)

Day 2

Our Day 2 at the Berlinale started as it did the previous day: with a light breakfast mainly consisting of a ton of eggs, bacon and red beans. Oh, and bread, fruit, get the idea.

This time we had no time to spare, since the first movie we wanted to see, War on Everyone, started at 12:30, and we planned to be on the theater at least one hour before.

The line for the box office was pretty long by the time we arrived, but after all the strange things that happened on Day 1 ( we just were not going to assume anything.

Our hopes dried out quickly though, since after just a few minutes we were told that there were not tickets left. War on Everyone was the movie on top of my list, so I was a bit disappointed. At least there were two more movies we wanted to see that day, so without time to complain we headed towards a theater nearby to buy the tickets for L'Avenir (Things to Come), the French nominee for the Golden Bear.

The line was pretty short, but that was only because the box office was not opening until two hours later. Waiting outdoors in Berlin during winter is no fun, and since we were only five minutes away from Brandenburg Gate we did not hesitate and decided for some sightseeing instead.

Weather was great, with blue skies and no clouds, one of those days that make Berlin one of the most popular cities in Europe. Five minutes after being surrounded by hundreds of people we were in Tiergarten, a gorgeous park in the way to some of Berlin most famous tourist spots.

After the park walk around and the visit to the tourist spots in the area, we headed back to the starting point about half an hour before the doors opened. Things had not changed during our time out, and it was still winter in Berlin, but some hot coffee helped make it through. We stood there for about two hours before being told, again, that the tickets had been sold out, and the doors would open one hour before the movie for the last time.

It was 4 pm and we still hadn't get a ticket for any of the three movies we wanted to see that day. Things were looking grim but, on the positive side, we were pretty hungry, so we headed to the same Italian place from the previous day, this time to get a pizza.

As my trip companion put it, we were already committed in the ticket plan (a metaphor from poker, meaning we had already invested too much time to give up now-and do something else instead), so one hour earlier we were, once again, waiting on the line. After 30 minutes we were told some promising news: due to last minute cancellations, there would be about 60 tickets available. We started counting how many people there were in front of us...and it was only about 40, yuhuuuuu!I In the middle of our celebrations someone wisely pointed out that each person could buy up to two tickets, so it wasn't a done deal just yet. But there is some justice in the universe, and after only FIVE HOURS we finally got our tickets!!!

The excitement was double, since we realized that the movie was a worldwide premier that would be screened on the Berlinale Palast, the biggest theater in the Berlinale. So we got to walk along the same red carpet where the movie crew was being photographed and interviewed by millions of journalists. It was as if all those people had gathered to cheer and take pictures of us, the brave heroes from Spain who had stoically waited for hours in order to get an entrance!

Already inside all-red the theater, we found out we were pretty underdressed for the occasion, but the excitement prevented us from caring much. The music was playing, the actors arrived and seated within us mortals, people were cheering and the show host started introducing the three different languages! Here another Berlinale-awkward -moment took place, and when she was introducing the movie in German he messed up a little bit. As we know from the previous day, the Berlin audience is ruthless, and a big proportion of the spectators started laughing. This I did not like. Come on, there you have a super professional host introducing the movie at the speed of light consecutively in German, English and French. The mistake was actually a tiny one, and quite meaningless in my opinion, since I'm sure 80 plus percent of the German audience could understand English anyway. This is what she said (in German):

"L'Avenir is a French production co-produced with France".

She meant Germany when she said "France", and everyone found out about the mistake since she said it well right afterwards when translating to English. So people started laughing and she, not realizing the mistake, got visibly annoyed, to the point where she asked the audience why they were laughing.  

After this uncomfortable moment the curtains were drawn, the light turned off and the movie started.


L'Avenir (Things to Come) tells the story about a philosophy teacher who, --SPOILER ALERT--, in the period of one year, suffers different changes in her life, from being turned down on a couple of projects from a publishing house, to being divorced and facing her mother death.

I read (in Wikipedia, of course) that the director, Mia Hansen-Løve, is child of two philosophy teachers, and you can really tell from the plot. Apart from the interesting conversations, I also thought that the rhythm of the movie was swift, the dialogues well written and the characters  interesting enough.

The main protagonist, Isabelle Huppert, is a very popular French actress I had seen in another movie a few years ago. I liked her acting a lot and will try to watch more of her in the future.


After L'Avenir ended there were only 30 minutes left before the last movie of the day started, and it was quite a stretch from where we were. Still, it was only 9pm and our last day in Berlin, so we decided to give it a try.

Running for our lives we arrived at the theater 10 minutes after the scheduled time and, oh surprise, there were no tickets available. I asked the door man if he did not mind we sat on the floor, but he did not like the idea very much. The movie, Midnight Special, was the most commercial of all the ones we wanted to see, and most of its protagonists are all well known Hollywood stars: Michal Shannon (the bad guy form the last Superman movie), the beautiful Spiderman's girlfriend Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton and the ugliest super villain of all times, Adam Driver, the bad guy in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

So, there we were, at almost 10pm in a small theater in the middle of nowhere, begging the doorman to let us in. As I said in my previous entry, strange things happens at the Berlinale, and another guy from the theater overheard us, and asked us very seriously if we had tickets. But he was one of the good guys, and he ordered us to follow him inside the theater, where he pointed and some free seats in the front row.

We got to see a last movie AND we did not have to pay (or wait in the line for hours) for it. I love happy endings.

The movie was more or less what we expected, very entertaining but nothing extraordinary. I really liked the actors, but the plot was kind of thin, and pretty much nothing happens during the last twenty minutes.

We headed to the hotel with an impression of "mission accomplished" (it's funny that we felt so happy and all we had done is watch couple movies), and the only problem now was that after so much going on we had forgot to have dinner, something unforgivable for a true Spaniard.

To make things perfect, we found a super tiny Vietnamese restaurant in front of our hotel that actually looked like a liquor store which happened to be open at 12am, and for only 5 euro I had the best coconut rice with chicken I've had in a long time.

The magic of Berlin.


One more thing:

-We encountered lots of errors in the subtitles of the first movie, I, Olga Hepnarova (writing was written writting, sneak, sneek, etc). Also, the English summary of the movies found in the online program was awful, both because of grammar mistakes and because often times they just made no sense. Very sad to see these things happen in one of the biggest movie festivals in Europe.

lunes, 15 de febrero de 2016

Berlinale 2016 (1)

Day 1

This year has been the second time I've attended The Berlin International Film Festival or Berlinale. Last time it was 2007, when lived in Berlin as an exchange student.

It has been a blazing experience. Berlin is just so much fun to visit, and when you add an open to the public movie festival to the equation, then little can go wrong.

Things actually started kind of tense, since we were supposed to buy tickets online before flying, but they were over before we could get our hands on them. But then I remembered that it was pretty easy for me to buy them on-site eight years ago, so we were not too worried.

The first day we wanted to see two movies, a documentary called Homo Sapiens and the Czech movie in competition, I, Olga Hepnarova.

The first movie only started at 7pm, so we walked for a while around The Berlin Wall before going to the main ticket venue, Postdamer Platz, where you could buy tickets for any movie (the other solution was going to the individual venues for each movie). We lined up for about half an hour before being told that no tickets were left, but may be purchased later "at some point during the day".

We found out during the weekend that many tickets are assigned to movie professionals, politicians, etc, that need to confirm attendance before certain time, otherwise the tickets are sold to the public. While that happened (hopefully) we headed towards  the venue of the first film, Homo Sapiens. We got there about 3pm just to find out that they would start selling around 5pm, so we had two hours to waste. We met there a rather eccentric guy who promised to keep the line for us as long as we would buy tickets for a movie we were not going to watch (you could only buy two tickets per person per movie). He also stared at us very seriously when saying that we had to pretend we were good friends, otherwise other people in the line would not allow him to keep us the position in the line. To this end he made sure we remembered each other's names before letting us go, :)

The cool thing about having a movie festival in a city like Berlin is that you are just surrounded by lot of cool places to see and we happened to be close to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (link) or the Protestant Church with a broken ceiling kept broken as a reminder of World War II. So we just went there and had a bite on the way, since we had not eaten anything since breakfast.

Two hours later our eccentric new friend was still the first on the line (he told us he had been there since 12pm!!!), but doors did not open for another hour, which we survived thanks to our now filled with food stomachs. At 6 o'clock, one hour before the start of the movie, we stormed inside the theater, but, oh surprise, there wasn't a single ticket available. After so much effort we did not even have a ticket to watch the documentary (which was not even part of Competition, or the group of movies that compete for prizes).

Our last chance was to wait for one more hour since someone could cancel their tickets last minute. 15 minutes before the start nothing had changed, but miracles (or dubiously strange things) happen in the capital of Germany, and all of a sudden tens of tickets went for sale, so our the effort paid off and we were finally going to watch one of the movies for the 2016 Berlin Movie Festival!

The movie (a documentary without dialogue picked by my trip companion) turned out to be just so so, but what really bothered us was that there were tons of free seats all over the theater.

Without time to do much complaining we rushed to Postdamer Platz (remember, the main Berlinale hotspot) to try to watch I, Olga Hepnarova, our last pick for the day. We had very little hope of getting a ticket though. What were our chances of getting a seat from the Competition section when it had taken us half day to get one for a Documentary with no dialogue?

As I said, strange things happen in these festivals (and they will get even stranger), so when we arrived to the super modern theater where the second movie of the day was showing we found that there was no one in the line and still plenty of tickets available. I bought the tickets, high fived my friend and headed to an Italian place I knew from my time as Erasmus student.

The movie, the Czech representative, tells the story of Olga, a woman who never connected with society partly because having being bullied by classmates and possibly because having been sexually abused by a family member (the movie only hinted at this).

--SPOILER ALERT--The protagonist is based on a real character who, in 1973, killed 7 pedestrians in Prague while driving a truck along the sidewalk. It was a premeditated action to address the evilness of society and its indifference towards bullying. She actually wrote a letter to the main local newspapers couple of days before committing the crime, which was essential for sentencing her to death:

"I am a loner. A destroyed woman. A woman destroyed by people... I have a choice - to kill myself or to kill others. I choose to revenge my haters. It would be too easy to leave this world as an unknown suicide. The society is too indifferent, rightly so. My verdict is: I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to death penalty"

I thought that for the most part the acting of the main protagonists was solid and the story was well told. There may have been a couple of loopholes, but possibly just on purpose.  The director implies on lot of things that may have happened to Olga so that we don't have an straight forward verdict on her actions, and this lead that on some occasions the spectator cannot really tell what is going on in the movie.

Still, I thought the movie was fine, and that is why what happened at the end of the movie left me completely shocked.

So, this is what happens. Inside the movie: the main protagonist, Olga, gets sentenced to death and the movie end. Kind of tough ending for not an easy movie to watch. Back in the theater, the real world: The movie ends and the curtains of the theater are drawn. This is when people are supposed to start clapping and/or cheering, right, especially during an event like this. Not in Delphi Filmpalast in Berlin. No one claps, no one cheers. In fact, there is not a single sound among the almost 700 people that fill the room. Extremely silence, like nothing I've seen before.
In my astonishment I don't clap either (I am new to this kind of events, so I would rather wait something does it before me).

It was a really uncomfortable moment, especially considering that people knew that the movie crew were among the public. Couple of minutes passed before the host approached the stage and timidly asked the audience if there was any question. Given the grim atmosphere the host was smart enough not to let more time pass by and, instead, started asking the director herself. After a while some people intervened, and I left the theater thinking what on earth had just happened...

Still, apart from that sad moment it had been an amazing day, and we headed to the hotel to rest before our second day at the Berlinale started.


domingo, 27 de octubre de 2013

Beijing Out of Control (2)

Some months ago I wrote about how prices in Beijing were scarily going up. By then I complained about having to pay 2,500 yuan for a room in an apartment downtown, or 16 yuan for a bowl of jiaozi (Chinese ravioli). Still, I was reasonably  happy with my room, which was an ok deal in the mid of the craziness of the Beijing real state world.

Well, few weeks ago our landlord told us he would not be extending the contract any more. He didn’t mention the reasons (Chinese like to be mysterious), and did not ask us for a huge raise in the rent (very common nowadays), just told us (through our real state agent, since Beijing landlords are too busy counting money to deal with the tenants directly) that we had to leave.

I was not too upset at the time. I had plenty of time to look for a new apartment, and even when I was pretty happy with my place, I told myself that I could get lucky and find a better place paying a bit of extra money. But reality in China is a bitch that likes destroying the few hopes left of its inhabitants, both foreign and locals. I have less than three weeks left before my contract expires, and if I weren’t for my job, which pays reasonably well, I would seriously consider going back home.

The first difficulty you find when looking for an apartment is real state agents. Most places advertised online are managed by the professionals of this zero added value industry, whose standard fee is one month rent. I was set on defeating Chinese reality about this, so I was told of a Chinese webpage that only deals with 个人房 (houses managed directly by the owners). I was very excited when making my first call, since the advertisement read that foreigners would have priority over locals. I was imagining myself dealing with an elegant and cultured Chinese landlady who lived abroad for many years. The price was pretty cheap (in its context), a two bedroom Siheyuan (traditional Chinese patio style houses) not far from where I lived. But as I mentioned before Chinese reality is a real bitch who destroys your hopes in no time.  The not so nice Chinese lady wanted to rent it to foreign MARRIED COUPLES, because he thought there was a risk of me and my female friend bringing our boyfriends home and she did not want that. I desperately tried explaining to her how my friend was never home (she practically lives with her boyfriend), and that I was a very quiet guy who never took girls home and lived an almost ascetic life. Bitch didn’t believe me.

It was a tough first blow losing that idyllic Chinese style patio house so fast, but without allowing myself any time to share tears I took the phone and made the second call. The receiver had no problem with un-married people, and I quickly arranged a visit to the apartment. But when I arrived to the appointed place the guy seemed suspiciously young, plus he was accompanied with an equally suspiciously young person to be a landlord (houses aren’t cheap, so it takes a while to gather the necessary money to buy them). I breathed deeply and asked: are you the landlord or a real state agent? Motherfucker didn’t even bother telling me any excuses, provided the Chinese site very clearly advertised that it “dealt only with landlords”. The Chinese agent said it was a “mistake” that he had put the advertisement in such website, and told me we could negotiate about the agency fee. Long story short, the apartment was dirty as shit (as usually), and when the agent asked me what kind of apartments I was looking for I told him I would not deal with cheaters like him, and left (apartment was also dirty as hell).

The last two apartments I had selected (I liked the location and the advertised price was reasonable) were, needless to say, another disappointment. One of them was a 4th floor apartment with no elevator (fucking 2 bedroom apartment for 750 euro!!!), and in case I would consider renting it the landlady told me she wanted a married couple in it (I pray to God the real state bubble will crash tomorrow so that I can call these people and laugh my ass off at them).

And that is it for the moment. In the next part I will talk about how I finally found the place my body will rest for the little time I have left in this horrible city.

viernes, 4 de enero de 2013

Movies I Liked and Movies I Didn't in 2012

In this entry I will do a short review of the movies I have watched during 2012. I will start from the movies I liked most and will continue in descending order finishing with the movies I liked least.

1. The Dark Knight Rises (USA, Christopher Nolan).

The nice thing about of this movie is that I loved it despite the very high expectations I had. Christopher Nolan makes a more than decent ending to his superb trilogy, satisfying both mainstream society and comic readers like myself.
What I liked most. How long was this movie, 165 minutes? Really?! Didn't actually notice. Excellent rhythm and music (breathtaking!) and cool fights. But perhaps the most outstanding (and controversial) aspect of this superheroes movie made mainstream is that it actually contains a message: beware rich and powerful men, some people are getting angry, and if the bridge between wealth and poor keeps on growing something big may happen. The scary thing about it is that many people find themselves more identified with the bad guys (Bane) than with the good ones (Batman or the policemen).
What I didn't like. The ending. Few people understand why Bane turns out to be a mere lackey of Talia al Ghul. No biggie for me, still loved the movie so much.

2. Wreck-It Ralph (Walt Disney Animation Studios)

Nice surprise by Walt Disney Animation Studios. Went to watch the movie without knowing what to expect, having heard it was sort a homage to arcade videogames players. Not the best movie I’ve ever seen, but still an entertaining one with some winks to the videogames playing community.
What I liked most: the original screenplay and, especially at the beginning, how the movement of the protagonists actually look like videogame characters.
What I didn't like: After a very powerful opening part of the momentum is lost in the middle of the movie, when the references to videogames characters suddenly come to an end, and the movie just looks like yet another animation film.

3. Brave (Pixar)

Yet another good movie from Pixar. As it happened in Wreck-It Ralph, I didn’t know anything about the movie before watching it. With a rather simple plot, Brave is a tender movie with beautiful images and a message for women to raise their voice and be the true masters of their destinies.

What I liked most: beautiful landscape with a message especially relevant in the country I live, China, where women (and people in general!) are still afraid of voicing out their opinions. 
What I didn't like: simple plot with an easy to figure ending.

4. Life of Pi (Ang Lee/Li An)

This movie looked dumb to me in the trailers, but I kept on hearing good reviews from my friends, who encouraged me to watch it, which I reluctantly ended up doing. I have mixed feelings about Taiwanese polyvalent director Ang Lee, having loved his Brokeback Mountain (USA, 2005), sort of liked Eat Drink Man Woman (Taiwan, 1994) and Hulk (USA, 2003) and not so much liked Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (although I don't like too much martial arts movies anyway).

While not being an awful movie (wait and see for the next movies I will review), Life of Pi is as dumb as it looked in the trailers. The plot can be summarized in “no matter how much God fucks you up you should still be grateful to him”. But its main problem is the structure: while for the first half hour the movie is mainly a nice combination of present (story told by the protagonist) and past, after that the movie forgets about the narrator to be focused exclusively in the story in the past, all portrayed with an overuse of 3D effects that seems more a marketing campaign of 3D special effects companies than an actual movie. And to top it up, after you have been mesmerized by lots of bright sea creatures and sparkling (always bright and sparkling) magical forests the end is a 10 minute monologue by the protagonist where you just want to hit him to make him shut up.
What I liked most. Getting to know a bit about India.
What I didn't like. Senseless plot and overuse of special effects. Bad, irritating ending scene.

5. Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)

While Life of Pi was moderately boring and I could make it to the end, I just had to leave the cinema before the end of Les Misérables. I must say I am not a big fan of musicals, and I would have actually liked this movie if characters had talked like people do in real life. Still, I liked three of four scenes (music in the opening in one is pretty catchy), but I could not keep awake when characters were singing for five minutes just to say “thank you” or “good bye”, while another five were used to say “your welcome”, “talk to you later”. Dont see the fun of it. And the thing is that dialogues are sung 98% of the time. Maybe a combination between sung and spoken dialogues would have made me enjoy the movie, like it is done in some animation movies such as Lion King (Walt Disney, 1994).
Finally, I read the book not too long ago, so knowing exactly what was going to happen didn’t add any tension to the movie.
What I liked most. Depiction of post revolutionary France and some catchy songs. 
What I didn't like. Characters having to sing for ten minutes in order convey the simplest things.

6. War Horse (Steven Spielberg)

The introduction for this one is easy: absolute crap. If you are interested in listening to French people speaking with a super strong English accent with each other (as far as I know French people use FRENCH to communicate with each other) or you like watching lengthy corny scenes about super natural horses run through trenched territory then THIS is your movie. Personally I would rather be punched in the face for two hours than having to watch this movie again.
What I liked most. That it came to an end.
What I didn’t like. Pretty much everything.

7. The Flowers of War (Zhang Yimou)

As I said during my review of Love (2012, Doze Niu), watching a Chinese movie can be a painful experience, and The Flowers of War took me one step further into the realm of pain. What can we say about this movie directed by Zhang Yimou, capable of epic dramas such as Live (1994) but now on the road of commercial, shallow movies in the line of Feng Xiaogang? The Flowers of War is a mix between easy, nationalist-anti-Japan demagogy (I’m not defending what Japanese army did in Nanjing, but it has been told around one million times already) and stereotypical love relationship between foreign male (Christian Bale) and Chinese girl, who although being a prostitute happens to be also an intelligent, sensitive and caring girl who…enough of this, The Flowers of War is so bad it just doesn’t deserve anymore of my time. To wrap things up a friendly warning: think twice about it before watching a current Chinese movie in the future. Or better: just don’t watch any Chinese movie. Anything relatively interesting will be banned by the government, and even if it makes it through the censorship it won’t be successful among the majority of brainwashed Chinese viewers.

sábado, 1 de septiembre de 2012

Literary Review: Homage to Catalonia (1936), by George Orwell

I have always liked George Orwell books (who hasn’t, really?), having read long time ago 1984 and Animal Farm. But after reading recently two of his less known novels, Burmese Days and Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell is in a whole new level for me.

I don't remember having read so many novels of one writer and having liked (I mean, really liked), all of them. It is also quite meaningful that I read them throughout quite a long period of time, around ten years, the first two when I was in my teens.

After reading Homage to Catalonia I have developed a profound respect for George Orwell, both as a writer but even more as a person. Throughout the book I have been amazed by his intelligence, sincerity and straightforwardness.

In Homage to Catalonia George Orwell often expresses his personal opinions on politics. What I like most is that he always speaks with the utmost sincerity, not hesitating to say he was too naive at the time. Just after arriving in Spain at the beginning of the war (1936) to fight for the Republican side, he admits he had this idealized idea of socialism and the proletarian revolution. Although more than fighting for socialism the reason why he was willing to risk his life in a war was to fight against fascism, an ideology that was getting strong all over Europe.

Things were not as simple at it may appear at first sight. Over time the whole conflict has been simplified into a flight between Communism and Fascism. I am not going to deepen into Communist theory here, but let’s just say that many people at that time in Europe saw in Communism a way to fight many of the social inequalities of the time, and fighting Franco in Spain seemed like an ideal way to start changing things. Orwell puts it this way:

“The thing that happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution. It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain has made it its special business to obscure. The issue has been narrowed down to ´Fascism versus democracy´ and the revolutionary aspect concealed as much as possible.”

Here Orwell is very critic with the British press. While they supported Spanish government in its struggle to fight fascism, Orwell explains how they were also afraid that the revolutionary aspect could propagate to Britain and threaten the rich social classes.

Orwell also explains how, during the first months of the war, Catalonia (in the Republican side) was a socialist dream come true. There were no social classes, people called each other comrades and stopped using “usted” (Spanish personal pronoun equivalent in English to “you” but used when you want to show respect to the person you are talking to), etc. But things didn’t last long that way, and internal fights started appearing inside the Republican supporters.

“Of course such a state of affairs could not last. It was simply a temporary and local phase in an enormous game that is being played over the whole surface of the earth. But it lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it. However much one cursed at the time one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy and cynicism, where the world ´comrade´ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug.”

The Spanish Republican Army was supported by Russia, with Stalin as a head of the country. Stalin didn’t like Trotskyists, and so they forced Spanish Republicans to make things difficult for them. Orwell was himself a Trotskyist, and he tells how all of a sudden they would be hunted down and put in jail for absolutely no reason, under the pretext that they were spies of the Germans. Orwell tells us how some of his friends (there were quite a few foreigners fighting in the Spanish war) were put in jail just after having risked their lives at the front. He himself had to hide in Barcelona for few days before he could make it back to England. What I loved most about Orwell is his sincerity when telling how stupid he was for not having realized earlier how things would turn out. All over the book this sincerity prevails. It is easy to empathize with the writer, since you can see he is a humble guy telling things how he felt them as that time, without excuses, without bullshit.

To me, as a Spanish, it has also been interesting to read about Orwell’s opinions on Spaniards. In some of his quotes you can clearly see the honesty I was talking about before.

“Even more in Spain than elsewhere it seemed to be the tradition to stuff sick people with heavy food. At Lérida the meals were terrific. Breakfast, at about six in the morning, consisted of soup, an omelet, stew, bread, white wine, and coffee, and lunch was even larger-this at a time when most of the civil population was seriously underfed. Spaniards seem not to recognize such a thing as a light diet. They give the same food to sick people as to well ones-always the same rich, greasy cookery, with everything sodden in olive oil.”

I find it amazing that I can agree with what someone said seventy years ago. I find the quote below especially true and funny:

“One morning it was announced that the men in my ward were to be sent down to Barcelona today. I managed to send a wire to my wife, telling her that I was coming, and presently they packed us into buses and took us down to the station. It was only when the train was actually starting that the hospital orderly who travelled with us casually let fall that we were not going to Barcelona after all, but to Tarragona. I suppose the engine-driver had changed his mind. ´Just like Spain!´ I thought. But it was very Spanish, too, that they agreed to hold up the train while I sent another wire, and more Spanish still that the wire never got there."

But not everything was criticism. Orwell had a great opinion on the character of Spanish people. Here he praises their solidarity:

“A Spaniard’s generosity, in the ordinary sense of the word, is at times almost embarrassing. If you ask him for a cigarette he will force the whole packet upon you. And beyond this there is generosity in a deeper sense, a real largeness of spirit, which I have met with again and again in the most unpromising circumstances.”

He even goes as far as to pointing out that, even if Fascism would win in Spain, it would not be as bas as other Fascisms in Europe:

“I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards. I only twice remember even being seriously angry with a Spaniard, and on each occasion, when I look back, I believe I was in the wrong myself. They have, there is no doubt, a generosity, a species of nobility, that do not really belong to the twentieth century. It is this that makes one hope that in Spain even Fascism may take a comparatively loose and bearable form.”

Interestingly, Spanish Fascism was the longest prevailing in Europe, after winning a war that lasted for three years. So in a sense the effort of George Orwell was in vain. He risked his life (was almost shot death in the neck) and lost many friends, but it was not the Fascists who caused most of those deaths, but the police of the Republic, the side he was fighting for. That would surely have left an everlasting impression on anyone. Yet Orwell finishes the book by saying that he left Spain with “more belief on the decency of human beings”.


domingo, 20 de mayo de 2012

Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

I read this novel last year, but before I completely forget about it I want to write a small review.

The story of this book is particularly relevant to me, since it talks about the life of an expatriate in Asia. It warns about the dangers of colonialism in a society, in Burma, where British are the ruling class and feel superior to the natives. Among them we find the protagonist of the book, John Flory. John often rejects the behavior of his fellow countrymen, plus he has blended much better in the life of Burma than most of his colleagues. But poor John has also fallen into many of the vices of the other expatriates, such as alcoholism, and since he has to cooperate with them he never really makes a real stand.

The book was very enlightening to me in some aspects. For example, it showed how difficult it is for European expatriates to blend completely into the culture of an Asian country. John, our protagonist, is fluent in Burmese, his best friend is Burmese, and his lover is also from Burma. But regardless of how long he spends in Burma and how hard he tries to integrate he will always be a British expatriate.

But of course the situation in Burma at that time (1920´s) and that of nowadays can’t be compared. Burma has been colonized by the British, and the novel is set at a time where very few people would deny the moral superiority of European countries over "third world countries". Even many of the natives in Burma don’t deny it. And actually the "bad guy" of the novel is not a British but a Burmese who, in order to be accepted in the exclusive (drinking) club of the British, designs a cruel scheme by which he means to ruin the life of many of his fellow countrymen. But for him that is not a big deal, since the goal is a great one, attain the status of the British.

Besides the main plot there is the relationship between John Flory and Elizabeth, a British girl who has just arrived from Europe in order to live with her uncle an aunt in Burma. John falls in love with her right away, since he sees in her all the qualities absent in his corrupted expatriate friends. However, Elizabeth is described to the reader as a simple minded girl, extremely materialistic and ignorant about the world and with no desires to change her situation. John, very familiar with the country of Burma and its people, tries to teach her everything he has learned, but she has no interest in all that, being her main motivation going hunting and dressing nice clothes, always keeping as far away as possible from the natives. But John, although often disappointed by this behavior, can’t really see her the despicable way she is described to the reader.

Finally, it is interesting to see the role that Chinese characters play in this book. While they are considered as low-class people by most of the British, John considers them at a superior level than the Burmese, and talks about them as a country with a great culture and traditions.

Burmese Days is a great description about the country of Burma under British regime, and it is a must read for expatriates from western countries living in Asia. It is a very realistic account of what life in Burma must have been like (George Orwell spent five years there as a police officer, from 1922 to 1927). As in 1984, the general tone of the book is rather pessimistic, being no heroes in the book, but ordinary people, many of them more evil than good, others trying to make the most of a reality that should not have been created in the first place.

miércoles, 4 de abril de 2012

My favourite hobby (1)

I started playing tennis when I was 9. It was summer, and my mother´s best friend and my own decided that we had to do some sport. First they thought of the gym, and after that, I don´t know how, my friend´s mother found a tennis club near our house.

Sure, why not, my friend and I thought. I had played tennis when I was 4 and apparently I hated it (don´t even remember), so I still had a racket (wood made, one of those Bjorn Borg used 40 years ago, which I used during my first drill session in order to determine our level. My friend did better than me, but I thought it was my racket´s fault, so after one week playing I bought a new one. After that things started going better. My technique wasn´t the best, but a mix of competitiveness (I hated losing so much) and being quite athletic (I usually won all the really long matches) were enough to advance levels at a decent path and leave my friend behind.

I remember very well my first two matches. The first one I lost 6-4. I think I didn´t get too angry then (losing my cool on the court has made me break a couple of rackets). The second I lost 10-8. Still, few weeks after that I was at a higher level (there were 14 at the time) than both players. After a few months I was playing with the best of the club. I loved both training and competition. But soon after I started playing competitively most of the best players left the club. There were some issues in a couple of tournaments involving parents (who oftentimes took it more seriously than their kids), and so our trainer decided he didn´t want our club to be present in any more tournaments. It was a letdown for me and I thought about going to another club. But I wasn´t that good, and at the time I started having problems at my wrist, and because there was no club at a decent distance from home I just stayed there playing for fun and winning quite frequently some of the internal tournaments.

Once I started attending university the tendinitis in my wrist was giving me a lot of trouble. I visited the doctor many times, but the creams I was told to use didn´t do me any good. I remember my trainer telling me to just ignore the pain and apply ice to the wrist after playing, but it was very painful and I thought he was crazy anyways (my trainer was one of a kind), so there were many months where I didn´t play at all or where I had to change my backhand, by far my best shot, from two handed to one handed, and it really sucked (I said at the beginning I´ve never been the most skillful of players).

I remember being really frustrated during those years. My backhand was subject to my wrist problems (I forgot to mention I had the tendinitis in my left wrist), and my forehand had always sucked. I have always have a tendency to do things differently that others, so I had the most weird forehand (something like this) which gave the ball a lot of spin but made it difficult to achieve winners.

During my exchange year, in Berlin, Germany, I played quite a lot with an Italian friend of mine. We played almost every week, and I was clearly better than him, but I still I was very frustrated when playing against him, since I could barely dominate the game with my shitty forehand. So when I returned to Cordoba, my hometown, and started playing during the last year of university, 2007-2008, I decided to change the grip of my forehand and start playing just like everybody else. This may sound easy, but it is the hardest of things to change the way you have done something fore more than ten years. At the beginning it was terrible. I just could not keep the ball in the court, and I kept on changing between my old and my new grip. I played few months like that and I felt really frustrated, since I had been playing fore more than ten years I could by no means be considered a good player. As I said, my two hands backhand was still pretty good, but the tendinitis in my wrist didn’t make things easy.

But I still loved the sport, and a week after I had arrived to Beijing in 2008 to start my China adventure I had already contacted a French guy in the Internet to start playing together. The guy was pretty good, and the first time we played he destroyed me. Still in the forehand transition phase I had no confidence in my game, and after we played I was afraid he would not want to play with me any longer.

Fortunately with me he was too busy to find another tennis partner (he was running a business), and so we kept on playing occasionally. My forehand still sucked, but when my left wrist was in good condition I could more or less be a decent adversary. During 2008-2009 I played with him many times. He would usually beat me, but some times (very few), with a lot of effort, I could outplay him.

In 2009 I got a one-year scholarship to study Mandarin at the Peking University. We were living in the dorms for foreigners, which were ten times better than those for Chinese. They were in the west side from the campus, quite far away from the classrooms, but still I found the location wonderful: they were ten meters away from the tennis courts. I played a lot that year, I’d say at least once per week. I was still very frustrated at my game (you know, in my head I have always been a great player), but during this year I started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. While my backhand still sucked there were times (not very often though) when I was felt relatively comfortable hitting the forehand. A big letdown was when I tried to make it for the Peking University tennis team.  In order to be in you had to beat the two guys of your group. The great organizing guys from Peking University put the three foreigners there in the same group, so that only one could be part of the team (as everybody knows, China is a pro-multicultural country, as it can been seen from their visa policies and the easy access of foreign internet sites). I first had to play against a German guy. He told me he hadn´t played in years, so I had hope. When we starting warming up I was sort having the initiative, but little by little he started playing better, and by the time we were about to start the match I wasn’t that confident anymore. He destroyed me 4-0 (in my defense I have to say that I had not played against a left-handed player for years, and that makes things much harder).

But I also had some glory while at Beida (short in Chinese for Peking University). In May I joined the Peking University Open. It gathered more than 60 players all around Beijing (probably no more than 20 people played decent tennis at Beida), and it would be a two days tournament. Sounded exciting.  For the first round I had to play in a four people group, best of four games, out of which the best two would classify. My first game was against a very tough opponent, but after a long fight I ended up winning. The other two guys were Korean, one pretty good and the other pretty bad. I ended up defeating both of them.  As it has happened to me many times in China, I am sure the good player from Korea was much better than me, but his strategy and competitiveness weren’t as good (my technic sucks, yeah, but I have been playing tournaments since I was nine). After that I had to play in the 32 best, already a one set match. I don’t remember the details, but I won the first match and then returned to the dorms to be received as a hero by my Spanish friends. The second day awaited, and after a good night sleep (I used to love the feeling when I was a kid when you went to bed anxiously waiting for the next morning tennis tournament) I was ready for the battle.

The match was at nine or ten am, and I knew my opponent very well.  He was the tennis trainer at Beida. He was a middle aged man in his forties, and a real dick. I could explain further, but let’s just say he wasn´t the nicest of persons. It was my opportunity to show him some good manners. I beat him 6-0 in which it is one of the happiest memories in tennis I have.

After him I won one of two more games, and without realizing it I had made it to the top 4 of the tournament. The guy I had to play with wasn’t a beginner. Our level was similar, but his forehand was clearly better (no wonder). After half an hour of battle I was leading 4-3. I would have easily defeated him, but, unlike most of the Chinese guys I have played with, he was a smart guy, and he realized my forehand sucked, and so he played all the balls there. I ended up losing 6-4.

My feelings after the tournament were mixed. I had won lots of games, but at the end of the day I was still disappointed at my forehand, over which I didn’t have much control. That was already in May (God it was hot at Beida), and after a few more weeks I returned to Spain for the summer. I had applied for two scholarships to study a MA in the United States. I applied for two scholarships, and having passed the screening phase for both of them I had to attend the interviews, one in June and one in September. That meant I had to be stuck in Spain for the whole summer. I didn’t play much tennis during that summer and, worst of all, I didn’t get any of the scholarships (good thing I didn’t, now that I think of it), so at the end of September I was back in Beijing. I didn’t know it back then, but that year in Beijing was the beginning of a professional career I would have never thought of. And most relevant for this entry, the beginning of a new age in my tennis career.