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Category Archives: Anthropology

Nocturnal nations: Argentina and Spain

The Argentines must be the most nocturnal people on the face of the earth. Although this tradition clearly derives from Spain, the Argentines have taken it to a new level. Whereas on the continent, the nocturnal Spaniards will eat around 10 or 11 and begin filling the bars and clubs around 12 or 1, the Argentines eat around midnight and don’t make it to the bars and clubs around 3 AM. You can go out at 8 or 9 and see empty bars. You can pass by around midnight and see them with still just a few loafing foreigners. It’s not until 4 or 5 in the morning do you see them full and bustling with activity both inside and out. The whole city is suddenly alive and scampering with people who came out of the high multi-leveled flats, feeling at last the call of life. As in Spain, you do not really feel the extreme density of the cities until you have experienced the night life. But the night life occurs at such odd hours in Argentina, that you’re better off adapting to it by holding a completely different sleep schedule.

I actually did live with one fellow who was nocturnal. He was a student and I was living in a kind of student boarding house, a noisy, dirty place full of young Argentines and other South Americans. He slept upwards of 18 hours a day and did not stir until dinnertime. The guy was a large, strong, bearlike, bearded type from the south of the country. He’d roll into bed late in the morning, usually when I was getting up after a difficult night of sleep (the constant noise was really taking its toll on my sanity).  And he would stay there, snoring quietly, rolling over now and then, until around 10 or 11 at night, just in time to catch a shower before going to eat.

I remember overhearing him at dinner saying that he felt so tired. He rubbed his eyes and brushed his hair back. His eyes were red. His sleeping habit was wreaking havoc on his system. He was becoming more and more tired and lethargic the more he slept. Yet he continued for as long as I lived there. A 20-year old man living like this. He didn’t work or show any real ambition, but he was an excellent classical guitarist. He studied something or other at the university but I never saw him crack a book my whole time there. I don’t even think he went to class. As for partying, I didn’t see him as one to go out very much either. He was mostly sleeping and eating. And when he ate, after just having awoken, he would be yawning the whole time, and in some cases would go straight back to bed after.

Needless to say, he’s not representative of the Argentine nation, just another case in an otherwise nocturnal-leaning country. I remember going out to extravagant meals with my coworkers around 10 or 11 and seeing whole families–mom, pop, grandma and grandpa, the kids, the relatives, etc.–eating together as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Sunday morning around 11 AM, Buenos Aires appears like a city following an Neutron Bomb explosion, in which all the people have died and all the lights are out, but the buildings remain intact. It’s probably the best time to go sight seeing because of this, but can be a bit lonely for the wayfaring tourist.

In Spain, however, people don’t really adjust their lives to the weekend rite of going out late; they just bear out the long Friday and Saturday nights and still remain throughout the week on normal European hours. This is of course because they are part of Europe and the EU and must maintain those standard hours of the common market. Since they also want to enjoy their drawn-out  Spanish evenings, you see something similar to what happens on Friday and Saturday night, though less pronounced—the streets are mostly empty for a long time, then the restaurants fill up around 10, and the bars shortly afterward. Then the Metro suddenly swarms alive with people, bedecked in their most alluring and provocative clothing. The whole thing sometimes feels like a pagan rite, an ancient tradition stemming all the way back to the Roman era when circenses were partaken with a deep gusto and guiltless pleasure-seeking. I do not know if it this has recurred due to Spain’s sudden lapse in  Catholicism and the end of Franco, or if this was something that always was there in Spanish culture, a deep love of the nocturnal pleasures. Whatever the case, it all happens like clockwork and doesn’t seem to depend on the weather, the economy, or the weekend. Whenever and wherever, the cities will fill to the brim with life on Friday and Saturday night, but only after 10 o’clock.

Although I say this is indeed pleasure seeking behavior as if that were a bad thing, I have to add that in many respects it’s more civilized than what you see in the Anglo or northern European countries. In Spain and Argentina, the night is long and slow. People do not drink until their head hangs over the toilet bowl, starting at 8 and passing out by 2. They start sipping a light beer or glass of wine, and spend most of their meal time chatting loudly. Then they enjoy a few more drinks sprinkled with more food and then go out dancing. Conversation rarely turns frank and philosophical, as it does among Anglos and other Europeans, and things rarely take a dark turn into drugs or fighting. The conversation and flow remains light at all times; there is a surprising lack of conflict and restraint, although the conversational style often comes off as argumentative. (The way to talk in Spain is for everyone to yell at once and the loudest person to be heard. If you want to order something you have to go up and be the loudest person to talk and ask in the most direct way imaginable. Otherwise, you’ll never get any service. I think this is a Mediterranean trait and can come off as crass to outsiders, but you have to understand that it’s normal to them and they don’t think they’re coming off as harsh.)

Also, there aren’t as many different subgroupings in Spain and Argentina: fewer Goth clubs, or hip-hop clubs, or rock-only pubs, etc. There’s a homogeneity to the culture, which leads to a generic bar and club style: the bars are for eating over beer and chatting while listening to pop and the clubs are more for drinking harder alcohol and mixed drinks while listening to techno and some more trendy American pop. So people tend to follow the same trends and there is less of a sense that people only go to one type of pub, club, or other venue and only listen to one type of music. Less variety, to be sure, but less isolation as well.

Lastly, I’ll add that in all this night life, random coupling “hooking up” doesn’t occur–believe it or not–as often as you’d suspect. Women and men do show off and dress up, but they are out to have fun, not to find a one-night stand. Your chances are much better with the women of northern Europe if that’s what you seek. There are a few reasons for this. Usually Spaniards and Argentines go out in self-contained groups that do not associated with other people. They may encounter friends and join with them, but they do not usually venture to meet strangers. And the groups can be rather large, so it although may look like autonomous people, but they are usually there together. Because of this, all the old social pressures apply (which are greater in these less individualistic countries) and especially since people aren’t plastering themselves with booze, random coupling remains rare. Of course, there’s a lot of flirtatiousness and showing off but in general going out is just a way to pass the time and socialize. The social circle is an impediment and hurdle that must be circumvented or encountered if you’re to have any luck. Generally speaking, you need to get to know people and their groups of friends to be accepted and then go on a date with someone. This may be changing, of course, but that was my experience and observation.

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Pyramid Lake, overlooked gem outside of Reno

Just 45 minutes outside of Reno–and even within distance of San Francisco–lies the under appreciated Pyramid Lake. If you don’t like dealing with fees, permits and waits for taking your boat into Tahoe, it’s an ideal alternative. You usually can pick up a boat permit at 7-11 in Reno before heading out north, and completely avoid the lines there.

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Brief digression: would you want to go to Pyramid without watercraft? I suppose you could go for swimming and hanging out at the beach. The water can get quite warm and clear in summer, even if it’s a bit salty. Even so, it’s more of a fishing/boating/jet-skiing area than a beach hangout spot like Tahoe. Boating seems to be the ideal activity; you’ll be surprised by the lack of traffic there.

Having driven over from San Francisco that morning, we didn’t get in a little after 1 o’clock. My mom remarked that there were more people there than she’d ever seen, but, apart from some cops annoyingly looking us over, it was a smooth, quick departure.

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We started roaring over the water at 30 mph and once the cops were out of sight cracked open bottles of beer to celebrate the Memorial Day weekend.

Straight across from the boat dock at the fisheries is the Pyramid. It’s probably more of a ziggurat, with a typical Nevada moon-like surroundings. The water, too, is a deep green, giving it an extraterrestrial appearance.

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After taking a dip in the water–which was, this late May, still freezing coldOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA–we pulled up to the bay and got out to get a closer look at the Stone Mother.

It’s Paiute Indian land there and the Paiute tribe nearby comes to her to pray, sometimes leaving the Stone Mother offerings. There were none today, but when we started to move off, we noticed some of the Indians setting up for what looked to be a ceremony.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA See the face? The offerings are left in the broken rock to the right.

Afterward, we got back in the boat and headed for a long, fast ride around the Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge, a bird sanctuary which happens to be a large, pyramid-shaped island in the middle of the lake.

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Sun-drenched, we then headed back to shore. In total, we probably covered 7 or 8 miles by boat over the course of a couple hours. But if you’ve got the time, Pyramid Lake is enormous–nearly the size of Tahoe–so you can boat all day and camp out in different locations along the way.

 
 

Alcohol Belts of Europe

Europe has three alcohol belts. The vodka belt in the northeast, the beer belt in the northwest and the wine belt in the south.

Also included in the wine belt here are Israel, Lebanon and Armenia, where wine is often drunk. Notably, the wine region is the least prone to alcoholism; the people there like to sip their drinks with meals, and have cultural and genetic defenses against heavy drinking. All brewed fruits are considered wine: that includes not just grapes in the whole region, but apples in northern Spain, France and England, as well as Pomegranates in Armenia (if you haven’t tried pomegranate wine, get yourself a bottle immediately).

Fruits, not growing in such large quantities further north, means that grains have to be brewed and made into beer, or potatoes and grains mixed and made into vodka. Heavy drinking prevails in the vodka and beer belts, though it’s far worse in the vodka belt, where alcoholism is almost a cultural norm among men. In fact, the place where Orthodox Russian civilization begins and Western European civilization ends (this can be somewhat blurry, mind you) is at the end of the beer belt, in Poland, Finland and the Baltic States.

All of these regions overlap, and they have their origin in climate and geology, though such climactic differences have resulted in some rather large cultural differences on the European continent.

My ideal part would be an overlapping region of the wine belt and beer belt, my two favorite drinks. Southern German, the Czech Republic, Austria… these regions also make the best beer, because they can experiment more with different temperatures and variations including fruits.

 

El mundo pijo

Pijo is an interesting Spanish word, which translates to mean something like “posh” but with its own Spanish connotations. It’s both an adjective and a noun, so a person or thing can be pijo or pija and people can be pijos (male) or pijas (female). It can unfortunately be confused with another word in the feminine form.

We don’t really have a landed aristocracy or strict class system in the United States so the closest thing I can thing to translate posh or pijo to is prep or preppy, although it’s actually a lot simpler than that. In Europe, things are much simpler; the rules of society are laid out from a young age. Rich people are born rich and in the right class. They’re usually conformist twats who know their place and fill it well. Same with the middle class, working class and poor.

The main reason there isn’t a lot of tension is because the differences aren’t all that large in income, compared to the US, and because they’re so separated. And most people don’t care for social climbing in Europe, which reduces tension and kills the rat race desire. If you’re posh you’re totally okay with it, just like if you’re working class you like to show it off in the way you dress and talk. In the US, on the other hand, there is the weirdness of dressing up and down between classes, and the use of subtle indicators that only people of your class can notice.

Also, in Europe, opinions, work and schooling are of secondary importance (as opposed to primary in the states), which makes the whole thing quite innocent and easy to fathom, since how you dress and talk who you’re parents are is pretty much everything. In the US, good luck being upper middle without having gone to an Ivy league school or close to it or holding the “right opinions.”

So, what is a pijo? Well, here are some pictures.

The pijos tend to inhabit the major cities, mainly Madrid and Barcelona, and only in the central or northern barrios of Madrid as far as I can tell, ranging from Chamberi to Salmanca to Opera/Sol. The pijo is decidedly non-Bohemian, which is oh-so bourgeoisie these days. The pijo is posh, which means that they do not wear t-shirts, but rather artfully layer their clothing. The more articles the better. I won’t go too much into the clothing, but to put it simply, it’s usually of the prep brand name, simple, classy stuff, like Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and co.

Usually they have a lot of mom & pa’s money, sometimes a car, they prefer to take the metro, they play golf and tennis, they use a lot of anglicisms in their speech, have super straight hair (females) or the clean-messy gel look (males). As for politics, they’re supposedly more for the PP (center-right) but are very pro-Europe and free-market and hope to see Spain become more like the northern Europe.

But probably more important than than all that is their mode of speech, which uses a lot of foreign words and sort of has its own accent and ways of expression.

 

The “cuckold sign” in Latin politics

I knew that Berlusconi had made the cuckold sign behind a Spanish minister in 2002, so I was surprised to find another incident in Portugal, where a politician lost his job for giving the cuckold sign to the leader of the Communist parliamentary group.

For those of you who don’t know what a cuckold is, it’s a man who’s wife is cheating on him (there’s a vast amount of literature on the subject). It’s also implied that he doesn’t have the gall to confront her about it and that the situation is obvious to everyone in the community. To use common parlance, the man is whipped. And, surprise, surprise, it can be a pretty big insult—or just a joke. So the very symbol itself has heavy connotations.

In America, you only really see the “real cuckold” sign at metal concerts. We have our less serious form, known as “bunny ears” or the “v-sign” which might be a simplified, somewhat less serious cuckold sign. This prank is common, but people in the Latin world seem to prefer using the full cuckold sign, and it still carries with it the medieval meaning.

Cuckoldry is really a cross-cultural phenomenon, but there is an interesting explanation of what it meant to the Greeks, who took it a bit more seriously than some other cultures.

… the act of disobedience by which she damages her husband most severely is adultery. In adultery she makes her husband a cuckold (κερατ□ς), one who wears a horn. ‘She puts horns on him’ (το□ βάζει κέρατα), it is said. The implication that the cuckold wears a horn may be an ironical allusion to the sexual potency which his wife’s action suggests he does not possess (Campbell, 1964, p. 152)

As such, flashing the sign in a serious setting is essentially calling into question a man’s masculinity. I’m sure, in another era, duels were fought over it. Now you just lose your job.

 

Potatoes and Northern Europe

While I was eating potatoes and eggs for dinner tonight, I remembered a quote I had read about the importance of the potatoes in Northern Europe from Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.

When the potato got to Europe, it changed the course of European history. Before the potato, the northern tier of Europe, the population was relatively small and was held back by regular famines caused by failures of the grain harvest.

The further north you go, the dicier it is to grow wheat. And so the center of gravity in Europe, before the potato, was the Mediterranean, where you could grow grain more reliably. The potato did very well at the more northerly areas. It did very well in wetter areas, and it did very well in really poor soils.

So suddenly there was this vast new source of calories that could underwrite the growth of the population, such as never would have happened without the potato.

Since one individual can grow so much food, you need fewer people in the fields to support an urban population. So it’s really hard to imagine the Industrial Revolution proceeding as it would without the potato to kind of support it. This New World food remade the Old World.

Some evidence to Northern Europeans lack of ability to produce and harvest lots of wheat is the fact that Northern Europeans and their descendants are much more likely to have Celiac Disease than Southern Europeans, who rely a lot more on wheat, eating loads of bread and pasta.

So, the Spanish, bringing the potato to Europe from America, spawned Europe’s population growth which led the industrialization of the northern region and a subsequent shift of Europe’s power from Italy and Spain to England, Northern France and Germany—which remains to this day. Northern Europe’s success was—and still is—dependent on the potato.

Interestingly enough, it took the potato quite a while to catch on in Europe. It was initially used by only the poorest and by sailors, who found it could keep scurvy at bay.

Gradually, the Spanish realized that potatoes were perfect food for sailors on ships returning from Peru. . . . As early as 1570, potatoes could be purchased in markets in Seville, and, by 1573, they were being fed to hospital patients in other parts of Spain.

Through the first half of the seventeenth century, potatoes were eaten primarily by the poor and soldiers in Spain. . . .

From Spain, potatoes spread to all parts of Europe. Spanish ships carried the vegetable to Italy around 1560, making that country the first after Spain to eat potatoes on an appreciable scale.

The inventive Italians were quick to incorporate New World foods into their diet. It then spread throughout most of the world through Europe’s trading empire.

By 1600, the potato had entered Austria, Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland, England, Germany, and, most likely, Portugal and Ireland. Some historians claim that it was Basque fishermen who first brought potatoes to Ireland, when they came ashore to dry their catches on their return voyages from Newfoundland. Others maintain it was Sir Walter Raleigh who planted the first potatoes on his estate in Ireland. The potato was introduced in India, possibly as early as 1615, and had reached the most remote parts of China by 1643. Beginning about 1730, the Scottish Highlands adopted potatoes as completely as Ireland had.

But the potato would have to undergo de-stigmatisation before it could be fully disseminated. Many priests and peasants feared its evil nightshade power (as do our modern nutrition health gurus).

Aside from its odd, unaesthetic appearance and initially bitter taste, the tuber was feared for a variety of reasons. Since it was not mentioned in the Bible, it was often associated with the devil. As a consequence, in the north of Ireland and in Scotland, Protestants flatly refused to plant them. In Catholic Ireland, to be on the safe side, peasants sprinkled their seed potatoes with holy water and planted them on Good Friday.

Another source of prejudice against the potato was its membership in the nightshade family . . . So great was the fear that, when Frederick the Great of Prussia ordered his people to plant potatoes in 1744, they pulled them up. Frederick was forced to post soldiers to guard the crops. Ten years later, in 1754, the king of Sweden also ordered his subjects to grow potatoes. Yet, when famine struck Kolberg in 1774, wagonloads of potatoes sent by Frederick were rejected.

Frederick the Great really was great by the way. But I’ll save that for another blog post. It took the French, who also initially reviled the potato, to make it both acceptable haute cuisine and as a symbol of the republic’s dedication to liberte, egalite and fraternite.

The French were no more enamored of the potato at first than any other Europeans. Legrand d’Aussy, in his 1782 Histoire de la vie privée des Français (History of the private life of the French) wrote that the pasty, indigestible tuber should be eliminated from aristocratic households and left to the poor. . . . .

By 1780, potatoes were the chief food of the Pyrenean highlands. By 1840, the potato was well established in French cuisine, making its way in through the soup pot, where it added bulk and absorbed flavors. . . .

In 1793, during the “Reign of Terror,” the French people celebrated potatoes as their republican salvation. Even the royal Tuileries gardens were symbolically converted into a potato field. . . .

Potatoes gradually acquired a place in haute cuisine. Collinet, the chef for King Louis Phillippe (reigned 1830–1848), accidentally created the famous pommes soufflées (puffed potatoes) when he plunged fried potatoes into extremely hot oil to reheat them when the king was late for dinner.

And then there’s one of those odd twists in history where the potato made its way back to North America by way of Europe, rather than directly through South America. It took the Irish immigrants to entrench full scale potato eating to America; and the common potato we eat is the Irish potato, a breed that’s undergone modification in Europe for almost 300 years now, and far removed from the much more colorful and flavorful Amerindian varieties.

These potatoes, of which there are thousands more varieties, are more nutritious than the European type; less sugary, starchy, with more flavor and vitamins. One downside, however, is that they do contain more of the harmful substances that the European peasants were so worried about and are more likely to harbor viruses. I’ve heard stories of people eating too many potatoes in the Andean highlands and falling into a deep 12 hour sleep with little memory of what happened due to the large amount of solanine in these potatoes, which was bred out in the European varieties eaten in most places around the world.

But even the Irish variety is a nutritious feast, despite what our health overlords will have you think. The only real downside is its high glycemic index—which means you should just eat it with an ample serving of butter or sour cream.

You can actually get all the nutrients you need to survive on a diet of potatoes, milk and oatmeal. Sounds pretty damn Irish to me. Actually, this guy argues that that’s what they were basically eating for quite some time, and that there were reports of them being quite healthy on that diet.

Before the Great Famine, the traditional Irish peasant meal consisted mainly of potatoes, milk, oats, beans, barley, and bread. Potatoes were the mainstay. As the years grew leaner, dairy products largely disappeared from the Irish diet, since poverty forced many farmers to sell their milk to pay rent. By the time the famine hit, the peasants were eating pretty much just potatoes, supplemented with some salt fish and oatmeal.

How did the Irish do on this diet? We can’t be certain — nobody was conducting nutrition studies in those days. But there’s reason to believe they were healthier than you might guess. In the century before the famine, Ireland had the highest birthrate in western Europe. Some credit potatoes, saying the availability of easy-to-grow, easy-to-cook spuds made it practical to raise large families. Telling evidence on this score, one historian writes, “is that the Irish in general and Irish women in particular were widely described as healthy and good-looking.”

Not that that’s the most scientific analysis, but the trio of Irish women I met the other night were certainly Celtic beauties.

The only downside to that monolithic diet was, well, first they stopped being able to afford milk and then they got hit by the potato famine, so that, even if Ireland had the highest birthrate in Europe (still does by the way) its modern population is only about half of what it was a couple hundred years ago.

 

9 Nations of North America

The Nine Nations of North America is a book written in 1981 by Joel Garreau, suggesting that these regions better represent the main cultural “nations” of North America.  Each region has its own music, food, ethnic makeup, values, ideals and capital, or defining city.

Canada shares all of the Northern cultural regions with America: New England, the Breadbasket, Quebec, the Foundry, the Empty Quarter and Ecotopia. Latin America shares two regions with the USA, the capitals of which are both inside the USA: Mexamerican Los Angeles and Island Miami.

I come from Ecotopia and, without a doubt, the culture of Ecotopia is strong there. Most of my friends worship the environment (I like it myself, but I’m not going to start counting my carbon footprint or feeling guilty for my polluted human existence). Ecotopia, capital San Francisco, is bordered by a much larger region, Mexamerica, capital Los Angeles. I’ve written a bit about the culture of Ecotopia, which actually has a small enclave in Los Angeles and reaches as far as British Columbia.

Currently, most of my family lives in the Empty Quarter where there’s plenty of land and friendly people, but not much culture or things for young people to do.

Later, I think I’ll post some defining music and art for each region.

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2011 in Anthropology, Art, Culture, USA