Category Archives: Culture

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.


Proposed demolition of San Francisco’s Elbo Room makes a NIMBY out of me

In the news today was an alarming story that San Francisco’s Elbo Room might be demolished to make way for a new condo development.

Of course, this one’s personal: Elbo Room is where I walked up to my future wife and made enough witty banter to get her to go to the next bar with me.


Living in San Francisco for this long, it’s not surprising that finally one of the many changes here will affect me personally and force me to become a stick-in-the-mud NIMBY.

Honestly, I’d really hate to lose Elbo Room. It’s quite possibly the only place in the city with strong $3 drinks from 5-9 every weekday. My kind of watering hole.

More details:

The owners of the two-story Mission district building at the corner of Valencia and Sycamore which is currently occupied by the Elbo Room have quietly drafted plans to raze the bar and construct a new five-story building in its place.

Early plans for the development include nine (9) residential units, three one-bedrooms and six two-bedrooms, ranging in size from 500 to 1,000 square feet over a 770 square-foot commercial space and parking for six (6) cars on the ground floor.

There’s only two types of housing they build in the mission: luxury housing and low-income housing. Regular working stiffs just don’t get new places to live in the city. I can’t really tell which one this is going to be, but either way, I’ll be shut out.

But wait, there’s a slight chance of blocking this development. The building might be deemed “historic.”

While the existing building at 645 Valencia Street wasn’t deemed to be historic when reviewed as part of the Inner Mission Historic Resource Survey in 2011, the Planning Department has since “received additional information that suggests that the subject property may have associations with the history of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals in San Francisco.”

As a bar in San Francisco, that sounds reasonable. Let’s hope it works.


Cornerstone Sonoma: Gardens of Earthly Delights

This is an article I wrote for the Italian art magazine Look Lateral, which later decided to cancel their print version and my work along with it. Bummer, because it sounded like a great opportunity at the time. Having spent a fair amount of time preparing it, I’d feel it wasted effort to simply leave it filed away in a remote folder, so I’m sharing it with the world here. All pictures and text are my own copyright property.*

You see them, the huddled masses, bundled in their jackets, yearning to breathe clear air. Poor tourists, who voyaged so far to San Francisco, the pinnacle of California destinations, only to find that it’s not California. In summer, in particular, it’s smothered in an unending layer of dense fog. And, sad to say, it’s often like this during the other three seasons.

So where are Art Lovers, some of the most notorious visitants and bons vivants of San Francisco, to go for reprieve from the doldrums of a continuous white-gray existence and enjoy Artistic Experience, that essential to any life well lived?

The answer is to go north, to Cornerstone Sonoma.


I left just after breakfast. Getting out of The City was surprisingly harmless. Roaring over the Golden Gate I sped around the customary coterie of slow left-lane drivers, positioned just to annoy me. In no time I was rolling into the hills and valleys of the North Bay, a land known for its vineyards, climate, retirees, ample hiking and, last but not least, a population of well-to-do artists and intellectuals—not to mention their burnout hippie hangers-on.

The location was easy enough to find. Right on Highway 121 a large “Cornerstone Sonoma” sign appears, accompanied with a “Turn here” directional guide, for those too dense to read between the lines. An oversized blue chair also sits outside near the road and just at the entrance to the main plaza by the parking lot.

Shortly after arriving, I met Teresa Raffo, the co-founder. I immediately found her friendly, bubbly, warm and ready to tell me anything I wanted to know about Cornerstone.


What struck me first of all, as I basked in the warmth, was that the grounds were not limited to just the gardens; rather, it was almost like a small village, with shops, galleries, a restaurant and wine-tasting rooms. Telling her I was surprised all they had to offer, she said, “Yes, there’s something here for everyone. A lot of people get dragged along and don’t want to go to the gardens for some reason, and prefer to go wine tasting. A lot of people will also order lunch here and take it out to eat in the gardens to enjoy a picnic.”

Which is to say—don’t worry, you can even bring your philistine family members along and drop them off at the watering hole.

After heading out to explore gardens, Teresa cued me in to the history of Cornerstone.


Co-founded with her husband, Chris Hougie, the couple got their idea from a visit to the International Garden Festival at Chaumont during their honeymoon in ’96. Entranced by the spectacle of land art, they went on to buy a plot of desolate farmland and begin threading their way through the labyrinth of California’s zoning laws—a Borgesian process that lasted three years—while the artists were able to complete the first gardens in a couple of months.


Naturally, there were more than a few changes and bumps in the road. The idea of charging for an event and ripping out the gardens each year did not transplant from France to America very well. Instead, many gardens were left in place for several years, admission was free, and visitors would contribute simply through shopping, imbibing or making donations to the artists, as well as for usage in weddings and events. The grounds morphed into an embodiment of that Northern California ethos of “bourgeois bohemianism,” combining the contemporary art in the gardens and galleries with the entrepreneurial spirit in the artisanal shops.

However, I in no way want to dissuade the more anti-commercial or avant-garde among you from making a visit, as the gardens themselves are not a “commercialized” experience. Rather, as you stroll through them you are within the work of serious artists, recognized internationally for their exceptional craftsmanship, social consciousness and idiosyncratic artwork. I’ll touch on some of the current highlights and the impressions they made on me.

Red Lantern by Andy Cao and Xavier Perot features a gigantic lamp sunk into a pond with a railroad track leading down toward it. The garden symbolizes the exoticness of the Chinese in the old west and their role in constructing the American railroads. As I walked along the railroad toward the lamp, I felt as if I were descending a plank into the early American world as experienced by another culture.


Garden of Contrast by van Sweden and Associates meshes between three distinct environments, beginning with native, dry plants at the exterior, transitioning into semi-arid plants, and then, at the interior, to a moist, shaded environment. Over the course of a short walk, I felt a seamless alteration between the environments; once arrived, I felt peaceful, as if resting after a journey.

The Garden of Visceral Serenity by Yoji Sasaki, apparently styled on a very traditional Japanese design, is so simple and static that one can view the miniscule changes with ease. As I sat in the metal box in the interior—something all visitors should do, even if it feels a little like time-out—I viewed the feet of passers-by in relation to the trunks of trees, seeing both the rootedness of humans in the environment and their transitory existence in relation to trees.

And, of course, there was Ecology of Place for Phil Biaggi by Suzanne Biaggi, who gave me a personal tour.


Suzanne was radiant, a little shyer than Teresa at first, but talkative once we walked over to her garden and I posed her questions about her work.

Having started as a sculptor, how did you come to landscape architecture and what do you feel you can better express through this medium?

“I serendipitously found myself doing gardens a while after getting my MA in Sculpture. I enjoy the sculptural landscape you can create with gardens, as well as how interactive they are. I like that you can express ecological concerns more effectively and to a larger number of people through gardens, and that you have more elements at your disposal.”

Standing in her garden, she told me to listen in for a low sound in the background. I recognized it instantly. She told me it was a non-verbal track cycling through her deceased brother Phil’s voice, accompanied with Neil Young’s singing. She went on to say that the garden is dedicated to him and is her way of keeping him alive.

The garden also captures the importance of having a sense of place. Composed of two sections, the front contains the current ecology of the environs just around Cornerstone. A path curves over small puddles that represent the remaining wetlands. On both sides, amid a white terrain made of oyster shells, stand vineyards created with wire, which look gnarled and corrugated. Instead of grapes, rows of aluminum flaps, cut in identical rectangles, run over their tops in an equidistant, industrial pattern. When blown by the wind, they create a light sound that accompanies the low hum playing beneath.

Was your intention of the aluminum pieces to represent the effects of a massive monoculture imposed by the wine industry?

“You know, sometimes you do something and subconsciously it connects, but I was only thinking practically then—in terms of the sound. I should mention, though, that there are a lot of wineries that practice sustainable agriculture, and I think they should be recognized. My goal is to encourage us to move forward into a more sustainable future, which is represented by the second section of the garden.”

That area, hidden behind hedges, is oasis-like, with lush greenery abounding in it. At its center stands an enormous, stainless steel tree—product of the New Zealand artist Regan Gentry. Modeled on the California Buckeye, native to the area, the tree is a symbol of restoration as well as a sublime monument and superb work of craftsmanship.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe garden was still undergoing some changes. The brilliant plan to have a water pathway running along the sides of the walkway, 18 inches deep and capable of rising and falling in tune with the tide, had had to be filled in with rocks after visitors bumbling around with cameras fell into it on the first two days after opening. The only other option would be the usual clutter of bells, whistles, flashing warning lights and mandatory hazmat suits.

After the gardens, I went to A New Leaf Gallery where Brigitte MicMacker, the owner, gave me a walkthrough of the works in the current exhibit, Red, Black, White. Many works were from renowned artists, such as Mary Shaffer and Steve Maslach, though there were quite a few from upcoming artists as well. The only requirement was that they be “artists working in a contemporary mode, whether more experimental or classically inspired” and that they “demonstrate exceptional craftsmanship,” both of which were indeed true.

Having appreciated plenty of art, I found my stomach no less empty, so I decided it was time to wine and dine with Teresa and Suzanne.

Vegetarian and “light” options abounded at Park 121 restaurant, but I was feeling particularly sinful, so I went with a grass-fed hamburger and a glass of Pinot Noir, while Teresa and Suzanne nibbled on sushi rolls. It was pleasant to unwind after a few hours of discussing art and simply relax outside in the warmth.

All in all, I spent an extraordinary day at Cornerstone, a location that combines Northern California’s assortment of eco-consciousness, wine-drinking and bohemian funkiness. And not only was I away from the fog of Bay, I was among nature, art and some fascinating individuals, and enjoyed some spirits and food in the process—a trip well beyond the quotidian.

Daniel Bablinskas, August 2013

*Contact me at dbablin-at-gmail if you are interested in purchasing or republishing the article, or any of the content.

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Posted by on December 13, 2013 in Art, California, Culture, Going out, Tourism, Work


The Cary House

This is a draft for a photojournalistic story I’m working on with a friend of mine. It’s set in Placerville, near my temporary home back in the States. I’m hoping to do more articles in this vein. Check back soon for photographs to be added to the story.

The Cary House

Downtown Placerville, California sits The Cary House, a long, rustic, red-brick, four-story block building that serves as the town’s most popular hotel. All locals know of this vine-enwrapped building; it’s landmark. More than that, it’s surrounded in arcane mystery and possesses a suspicion of haunts, strange encounters and paranormal experience.

The two most haunted rooms are purportedly on the second story, rooms 212 and 214, at the far end of the hall. There are various stories for what may have happened, though most conclude that a murder or suicide took place. The question is only whether it was by fire, bullet or strangulation. Some also suspect that another murder took place in the back of the lowest level near the fire escape. And most recently, on Thursday, July 28th, a guest, a Mrs. Kurtenbach, saw in her hallway—which happened to be on the second floor—a pretty young girl in a white- and cream-blue dress with dandelion-colored hair half covered in a bonnet. She walked from one end of the hallway toward another, away from Mrs. Kurtenbach. “She looked back at me when she got to the far end of the hall. I tried to smile, or wave, but I was so struck by the strangeness of the situation, I . . . It was like she was from another era. And yet so real. Then, after she turned around, she just vanished. Just like that. And all I saw was the Exit sign above where her head had been. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Such experiences, apparently, are not rare. In fact, they are commonplace to visitors of the Cary House, although the Hotel has yet to gain notoriety for its supernatural aura. Local historian, Mr. Crocker, however, discounts any ghost stories as fiction. Crocker said that, contrary to local belief, “The Cary House is not old, not by historical standards. It was made to look old in the 1940’s. Really, what you’re looking at is the Raffle House, a re-creation of the Cary House which was in Placerville, or shall I say, Hangtown, during the good old gold mining days. So there’s no way you’d see some ghost from the 1800’s.” Crocker, moreover, claims that most of Placerville’s old town is just a Disney-like reinterpretation of the olden times and that most history stories of Placerville require deeper digging than looking at faux-historical architecture.

Nevertheless, the Cary House contains the oldest elevator on the west side of the Mississippi. And despite Crocker’s claims, there is a guestbook which goes back to the late 1800’s. One eerie entry for 1888 contains the words “3 moar.” This supposedly appeared all of a sudden after the second murder took place.

And the Cary House continues to exert an imposing force over its occupants. My first time there was just two days after the latest paranormal report. As I approached under its overbearing shadow in the heat of a summer’s day, I felt ill-at-ease, mesmerized. Inside, in the air-conditioned halls, I was captivated by the marble-green carpet, the lush upholstery, the stained-glass windows and the old western artifacts beneath the front clerk’s counter. Standing near the fire exit in the back, where the second murder reportedly took place, I felt the tension of trapped air accompanied by a dim electric hum and, as I began to walk away, I felt the sensation of featherweight fingers tapping my shoulders.

The Cary House, doubtless, induces a feeling of the bizarre and weird upon the psyche. Upstairs, the hallways appeared slightly off-center; walking down them you feel gravity in a warped and uneven way, as if the building had modified, for a moment, the universal laws of physics. The stairwell creaks; light comes through the skylight in dispersed, but sharp, piercing rays. Imagine staying the night there; after midnight when you lie down to sleep, it might not be difficult to mishear the sound of the ancient piano warily playing an outmoded dance tune, or the murmur of a child, in an unfamiliar colonial accent, speak brashly to its sibling. And later on, breaking your dreams, you hear a horse trot up in front of the building, waiting for its halter and water in a mangy trough, while footsteps plunk over the porch below.

For better or worse, be it a real historical edifice or a farcical refurbishing, the Cary House allows residents of Placerville, and of all the West, to come into contact with the unique history of their surroundings and the nebulous folktales and rumors that spawn around the presence of the past, a thing often lacking in the hives of condominiums and sprawling McMansions which cover so much of the state. The 10,389 residents of Placerville should count themselves lucky to live in one of the more historical cities in California.

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Posted by on August 14, 2011 in Crime, Culture, Hauntings, Tourism, Travel


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.


The Brave Traveler Phenomenon

I was recently watching a documentary on favelas in Brazil where an underground travel agency was now giving guided tours of the slums, and travelers, mostly Europeans, were gladly being taken into the worst parts of Brazil to observe the local culture, eat food and buy things. This helps demonstrated that which I call the “brave traveler phenomenon,” which is mostly a good thing, though it can be dangerous for the occasional traveler.

This phenomenon is characterized by a feeling of invincibility one feels by being in a foreign country, the sense that nothing is quite that real and that, even if you do have something to worry about, it’s not like at home. This can lead people, who otherwise would avoid slums and scary backwoods areas, to get outside of their nominal terrain when they are outside of the country. However, since those places they go, which the locals avoid, are actually dangerous, it means they do put themselves in harm’s way (though often, admittedly, the statistical danger is exaggerated). Putting yourself in odd situations may not always be pleasant, but it sharpens your senses and can make you more alert to danger, and can open your mind a bit when you get back to your home.

One personal example of this are the buses in Peru. When I was in Peru I rode some of the worst buses imaginable all around the country. I felt fine. Peru doesn’t feel all that unsafe a lot of the time, but surely I was taking some risks, not just in getting my stuff stolen, or getting a knife in my back, but in flying over the side of the cliff as the bus swerved to miss an oncoming fuel truck. I took them all around the country, the cheapest, ugliest buses I could find. When I got back to the US, I talked to middle-class Peruvian emigrants, who looked shocked, telling me that they would never even consider taking one of those buses. And they were Peruvian. Of course, most middle-class Brazilians would give you the same response to going into the favelas, just like a lot of Americans would tell you not to visit Harlem or take the Greyhound across the country, like I still probably wouldn’t, but for some reason Europeans do those things, usually without trouble (though occasionally there’s a tragedy), and seem to think that we Americans are crazy for worrying so much . . . but I’m sure those same Europeans avoid the outer suburbs of Paris like the plague.

So why do we feel so strong abroad, and so ill-at-ease at home? Well, part of it is the desire not to see the less desirable parts of your own country. I don’t like the existence of slums in America and I don’t want to be reminded of them. I have to live there (sort of). Also, I’m aware of many a happening in those areas and I’m not dumb enough to allow myself to become another victim. Also, if you take a guerra de clases point of view, I, a native, non-poor person, have more to worry about than a non-native, who is merely traveling around and doesn’t bear the feeling of mutual responsibility for the problem. He can look on more detachedly; it’s not his country, just a crazy place he’s passing through. Why are the natives so scared, anyway? It ain’t that bad. Which is exactly how I felt in Lima and some parts of Buenos Aires . . . until I was there for a while and started to get annoyed and agitated with having to live in or near slums and the so-called transitional districts. Having to live there makes it a great weight on the brain. It’s no longer an adventure to go visit; it becomes a hassle to avoid and to survive. And part of the problem is the local prejudice against such regions or areas, which even though they improve and change, linger in the consciousness as “bad areas” in the locals’ minds, stultifying investment and keeping the places from reaching their potential for a long time.

Fortunately, we have brave travelers to reminds us of the interesting, if not necessarily pleasant areas of our countries, that need to be brought to light, so that they are not simply forced away from consciousness, and are viewed as areas for opportunity, not places to be pushed away and forgotten.

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Posted by on June 23, 2011 in Crime, Culture, Tourism, Travel


Language of the Hand Fan

If you’re uninformed, you might just think this is a boring portrait of a lady fanning herself.

But she’s actually a subtle coquette whispering to you in fan language. There is a long history of a silent hand fan language that women use to attract lovers when out in public. Spanish women used to have pretty confined circumstances and in homosocial (restricted to one’s sex) high society they rarely had time alone to themselves to consort with other men.

So, they had to talk via the fan when they were out at events, like the bullring or the opera.

Of course, the men knew this too, as did the servants, so it was not very easy to get away with. But in those times in the Latin world, affairs were quite the norm, though monogamy was not openly flouted.

These little fans are called “abanicos” in Spanish. Here’s an article in Spanish which has some more information on the way one spoke with the hand fan.