Rites of Spring: Baseball and Carnaval

Now that you’ve had a little snapshot of my 6th graders giving baseball the old elementary school try, let me elaborate a bit on the scene that Friday afternoon. Firstly, it is important to understand that these kids are aware of the sport. I mentioned before that some of their favorite Japanese cartoon characters play baseball. Some of kids have also played a variation of street baseball reminiscent of stickball, as they implement a wooden plank and anything round instead of a proper bat and ball. The difference is that there is no cultural point of reference in the Spanish instance; it seems that the practice of this activity is much more closely bound to the natural evolution of young boys’  desires to go outside and hit things really hard than to the idea of a makeshift emulation of a professional sport. Furthermore, I have been informed that kickball does indeed exist on this side of the Atlantic, popularly called futbéisbol, which certainly supposes a basic understanding of the baseball diamond. I was therefore confident that after reinforcing the basic rules (I had spent the entire class the previous Friday explaining the sport), my 6th graders would be about on par with, say, the Kansas City Royals, and ready to play ball.


Not surprisingly, teaching children a new sport is received with equal parts youthful enthusiasm, natural talent, and ridiculous errors. So while the boys and girls alike were making solid contact and racing around the bases with wonderful facility, I found myself having to constantly dissuade the first baseman from spiking the ball in the general area of the plastic cone in favor of the traditional stepping on the base or tagging the runner. I tried to convince some of the kids that taking leaping swings at pitches two feet over their heads was not at all prudent, but I chose to just shut up after I realized just how well they were all managing to actually hit those balls. I also gave up on explaining the idea of force-outs and foul balls, which were being hopelessly ignored, instead broadening our possibilities to a more pared down version of baseball in which the only outs in the field were either caught or made at first base, and any ball struck forward, no matter how shallow the angle, was in play. I forwent calling pitches balls, as well. This simplified system worked very well, as it kept the 26 players more active and engaged. I didn’t want to overwhelm them with any of the complexities of baseball’s rulebook, because that would the best way to lose their interest. I am delighted to report that the students loved it so much that we kept playing for 20 minutes after the period had ended. Next week, spring training in Arcos hits the Alminares high school, where I will preach the baseball gospel to the lucky students of Toni’s husband, a gym teacher there.


Baseball is not the only sign that Spring is arriving in the south of Spain. Although this year’s early February dates are technically smack in the middle of Winter, the pre-Lenten festival of Carnaval is an impossibly jubilant, if alcohol-soaked, reminder that the countdown to Easter has begun. Nowhere in Spain, and arguably all of Europe, are the festivities more thoroughly, proudly and spectacularly celebrated than in Cádiz province, to which Arcos de la Frontera belongs. But this funquake’s epicenter  is the eponymous capital city. Saturday, February 2nd, was the first night of Carnaval in Cádiz. More than any other night of Carnaval, this kickoff night forfeits all the holiday’s traditional activities, replaced by bus loads of tourists and Spaniards alike who come from all points in the country to enjoy what is likely the single biggest party all year in Spain. The city’s entire old quarter packs in costumed merrymakers well beyond any reasonable capacity. This night is generally avoided by locals, but such a unique and exhilarating experience just an hour away cannot be missed. Some friends and I took a 9pm train – running at quadruple the normal capacity for the event – which is evidently where the party gets underway. Arriving at about 10pm, the city’s plazas and side streets had already been broken in. It was time for the true attraction is nine hours of wandering around, absorbing the over-the-top atmosphere, and chatting up an endless barrage of colorful strangers. Some highlights: trying to explain to a Mexican girl that my Mexican hat really was a reflection of my genuine interest in living in Mexico; trying to find the Plaza de España (this was a marvelously convoluted adventure); debating the role of regional governments and parents in Spanish public education; agreeing with a guy from Sevilla that Sevilla is a pretty nice place; hanging out on a wall overlooking the whispering void of the black ocean, an invisible force which seemed to have a pronounced effect on the speed at which time passed, although I couldn’t rightly say in which way. I left the city by train at 7:15am, heroically sprinting through the car’s closing doors, arriving in Jerez a little after 8:00, then having to wait until 9:00 for the next bus back to Arcos. I went to bed at 10:15am.


This past weekend was Carnaval in Arcos, which purports a more orthodox cultural experience. Perhaps the most emblematic element of the traditional celebration is the variety of singing groups who every year pen humorous original lyrics  full of biting social and political commentary into the typical Carnaval music arrangements of the Cádiz region. There are three different major styles of these music groups here – coros, comparsas, and chirigotas – each with a different dynamic and unique sound (perceptible after sufficient exposure). A coro is the largest of the groups, with often more than 20 members, at least two guitars, percussion (the caja), and usually a small selection of smaller string instruments. A coro, Spanish for “chorus,” will take a light-hearted approach to its social and political critique. A comparsa, on the other hand, is slightly smaller group of perhaps 13-18 members, and with just one or two guitars as accompaniment, and contain one vocalist who’s always really shrill and gliding over the rest of the group’s harmonies. Comparsas take on more serious social issues, and their humor tends to more pointed and topical than the other two kinds of groups. Chirigotas are by far the most popular of the three, probably because they fully relish in the notion that Carnaval is a time and space for the subversion of the codes of social conduct. In other words, everything is fair game, and chirigotas get very creative in their approach to the critiques, as practically every line is artfully layered with two or even three meanings, often related to whatever the group costume is that year.


While many of these groups are “official,” meaning that they are payed by their city to perform during the festivities, just as many “illegal” groups seem to hit the street corners throughout the week. Though fewer in Arcos than, say, Cádiz, it so happens that one of the most well-known unofficial chirigotas in my town counts my English co-teacher Toñi as one of its members. Last Wednesday evening, while walking up to the Old Town of Arcos for some drinks and tapas with some friends, a troupe of familiar-looking pirates descended upon a corner bar to entertain whoever was already there or would stop and listen. The next night the same crafty buccaneers invaded one of the shoe stores on the main drag, which I also unsuspectingly happened upon. But these weren’t my first encounters with these piratas arcences. A couple weeks ago a couple friends and I checked out one of their Friday night rehearsals in a local elementary school, which for the group was just as much to practice the songs as it was to drink beers and enjoy the good company. For me, what was especially enlightening was actually having the opportunity to dissect the lyrics sheet in front of me. While my comprehension level has reached new heights, understanding Spanish when sung can still be a challenge, and trying to pick up on the unkempt slur of the andaluz language used in these local songs is even known to leave many of the Castillian-speakers to our north dumbfounded. It can be next to impossible for a foreigner to catch, considering the rapid-fire double-entendres and localized topical humor.


I haven’t gone into too much detail about andaluz, but let’s just say it’s somewhere between a dialect and a joke. The principle modification of traditional Spanish found in andaluz is the pronunciation; the ends of words are often “eaten,” as they say here, in favor of a simple aspiration, or in order to combine multiple words into one. For example,  if you go to a market in Cádiz (“Cái”) and hear someone order “dó kilos de pecao,they’re asking for “dos kilos de pescado,” or two kilograms of fish. The end of dos is gone, and the “s” and “d” from pescado are omitted. Vamos para allá, which means “let’s go over there,” is shortened to vamo pa’llá. One of my favorites is Día de Tosantos, which is andaluz for Día de Todos los Santos, or All Saints’ Day. In addition to these and other pronunciation quirks, if we take into account all the words used only in this region, and that every town has its own distinct variation of speech, one can imagine that I was feeling pretty good about understanding about 50% of the songs without seeing the lyrics. And when I did read the lyrics, it fully hit me just how dirty they are. One of andaluz‘s strengths is its exciting and colorful selection of tacos, naughty words. Chirigotas  love to throw around spicy slang like picha and chocho, especially when criticizing a mayor or embattled public official, although both these specific words and their targets will have no chance of recognition by anyone who hasn’t spent significant time in this area.


Carnaval here was a great time, as the whole town takes to the streets and sings and dances away the night. Friday, endearingly referred to as carnavalito, was more centered in the Old Town, with some of the singing groups earlier on, and a lively atmosphere until early in the morning. Saturday was the cabalgata, the tractor-pulled parade headed by local beauty queens and young talent contest victors, and reared up by hours worth of slow-moving themed dance party floats. I appreciated the fact that the old farmers whose tractors were required for the parade were a part of the deal. It’s not every day you can behold a weathered sexagenarian on third-generation farm equipment, beer in hand, grandson at his side, drag behind him a throbbing “first communion” themed techno rave on wheels at about 2 miles an hour through the historic district of normally quaint and quiet town, much to the frenzied delight of the entire costumed citizenship.


A couple of other notes from my life. Firstly, just today a third housemate moved in with Charlotte and me. Her name is Naomi, and she’s from Granada, a few hours east of here. She’s a co-worker of Charlotte’s, who just got called to Arcos to teach last week. It’s nice to live with a native speaker, as now I have no excuse not to be speaking Spanish nonstop and be basically fluent. Incidentally, I have recently decided that I am indeed fluent in Spanish, not “highly proficient” as last edition of my resume reports. As I mentioned, my comprehension has improved greatly, but my speaking more than anything has gelled nicely. The only problem is that I’ve gotten really good at andaluz, which has equally impressed the Andalusian people and at times disappointed the more pure speakers from other parts of the country. However I am confident that my extensive background in academic Spanish will prevent me from slipping to far into any form of “low,” or overly dialectical Spanish. It would be just plain silly of me not to integrate myself linguistically into the culture here, though.


Secondly, my friend Miles (an American exchange student studying at a high school in Arcos for the year) and I have decided to spend the Puente de Andalucía four-day weekend at the end of this month (five days for us, as we’re taking the Wednesday as well) in Marrakesh, Morocco, hopefully with an excursion to the Sahara where we’d ride camels and spend a night in an a real Berber tent. We got a cheap flight there, but will have to catch overnight train to Tangier, then a  ferry to Spain, and buses back to Arcos on Sunday, which during holidays is extremely expensive to fly). I’m getting excited to get out of Spain and hopefully get some culture shocked into me. I have planned on taking a 8 million photos.


~ by lincolnbrody on February 12, 2008.

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