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Monday, May 17, 2004

I’m in the airport here in Valencia two hours early, of course. I came ready to check in early, figuring that the recent bombings in Madrid would mean even tighter security. But no. The Air France desk has a sign in the window, “Come back one hour before the flight.” This only proves that after these five days in Spain (and now three trips to Europe), I have still not internalized the intricacies of southern European efficiency. It seems to me best summarized in the expression, [shrug shoulders, make little pouty expression with lips and say with a Spanish or Italian accent] “Eh.”

I had absolutely no business making a trip to Spain this month. We are in the first week of Act One-DC, a program that has been in the planning since August of last year. My desk back in L.A. is overflowing with grant applications, budgets and Board business, curriculum and faculty notes, speaking invitations, scripts and books to read – basically, lots and lots of reasons not to go to Spain, even if I wasn’t already committed to being in DC for the month to supervise Act One. But here I am wrapping up five fabulous days on the Mediterranean coast, I think, fundamentally, because the Divine omnipotence knew last November that I was going to really, really need a happy break in about seven months in a lovely place with wonderful, gracious people.

The excuse God used to get me on this break was an international symposium – which sounds so much lovelier in espanol as “SEEm-pOH-si-Um EEN-TERRRR-nah-SEE-OH-nal” (say it again now fast for the full lovely effect) - at the Catholic Unversity of Valencia (don’t ask me which one of the two Catholic universities it was – they have been explaining it to me all week, and I’m still not sure whether we are the one dedicated to St. Vincent Martyr or not – although I did get that ours is the smaller of the two) on cinema and education. I gave a talk on day one of the symposium, and then spent the next three days being fed at various unbelievable restaurants, meeting many important people and walking around Old Valencia, forgetting most of the time to take pictures, which only means I will have to come back and bring a friend with a camera.

Muchos, muchos gracias to Prof. Pablo Vidal, who was the coordinator of the symposium – and who acted as my personal tour guide, chauffeur, translator and, all right, baby-sitter, for the five days. Pablo, if you can hear me from here, you get the official Act One Academy Award for being “Most Gracious and Thoughtful Person of 2004.” Thanks too, to everyone else connected with the symposium. I only wish I was a fraction as important a personage as you all made me feel during my visit.

“Aiiiii!” (Translators note: European expression for slight dismay.) The Air France people have just shown up. Will continue this probably in the air on the way to Paris.


Okay, back again. Some impressions of Valencia…No especial order acqui. (aqui? Acui?…el ratso.)

Valencia….Sidewalks and streets paved with pinkish brown marble. In some places weathered and cracked, but, damn, it’s still marble. I watched some workman in the city center laying down shiny new marble sidewalks that looked like they should have been in the foyer of Donald Trump’s nicest house. It got even weirder when I saw an elderly lady letting her stupid dog do his disgusting business on a marble sidewalk. Reason no. 4256386735457293423 to annhilate the canine species….

Weather more like the U.S. South than L.A. – some humidity, but not oppressive…..

Always that weird, weird European contrast of thoroughly secularized native people walking past unbelievable religious art in the fabulous gothic, renaissance and baroque churches, sometimes two or three on a block. – What is that about, anyway? Why would you build an immense church next to an immense church? I want to know….

Evidence of amazing history everywhere. I loved that they preserved a little alcove on the outside of the basilica with a tiny altar in it. Back in the 13th Century, it was the site of a huge Arab mosque – the central mosque for the whole region. When the catholic prince conquered Valencia in 12 hundred and something, he had a Mass said on the side of the mosque. Then, they leveled the mosque and built an amazing basilica. But I just loved the closet sized altar in an alcove. Emily said (paraphrase) “In a hundred years, No one will know what tremendousness transpired here.” Part of the European “thing” is to have nearness to way too much tremendousness….

Turned on the TV one night after mid-night and was shocked to see actual pornography on a regular station. I mean, real gross, disgusting and perverted pornography. I switched it off fast and sat on my bed feeling truly defiled. Jesus couldn’t have meant this when He said, “It is not that which comes from the outside of a man that defiles him.”…… Spain, what have you done with your baptism?!….

Food amazing. I repeatedly had the sensation of wanting to photograph my food it was so beautiful. For five days, I ate many things I couldn’t identify, but which were always amazing. There was a moment of hesitancy when Pablo had them set in front of me a black, pasty looking dish with one lonely looking crawfish on the top. But he hadn’t let me down yet, so I bravely took a bite. “Hmmmmmmmm,” I murmured, “I’ve never eaten black food before. What is it?” Pablo shrugged. “It is the ink of calamar.” “Ink?’ I paused in my chewing. We figured out it was the black stuff that squirts out of squid. Don’t think. Just eat. Oh, and did I mention…..

AH, FOIE! Almost feeling a kind of annoyance that I have gone this long in life without any experience of foie. Then, I decided to buy some to take home with me and discovered 100 ounces of the stuff sets you back a score of euros. I was horrified for a moment to think that the foie I had consumed in the last five days, cost the Catholic University of Valencia more than my plane ticket… But, ah, foie! Smooth, elegant miraculousness on a cracker. Stunned when they finally told me it was goose liver. Hating liver has been one of the most defining characteristics of my whole life. But by the time I found out foie was liver, I was already long gone into a new passion. I greedily handed over about a hundred euros at the Paris airport to take some back to the States with me, “For gifts.” I slunk through the airport gate, feeling triumphantly smug - like Ronnie Biggs escaping the continent after the Great Train Robbery. Stupid Europeans! I have lots and lots of your foie in my bag, and you are letting me slip your fingers….

I met my first European aristocrat (EA), and the experience went a long way towards helping me understand why my ancestors would have fled everything they knew and owned to come to America. This fellow was a filmmaker from a country which shall go unnamed, and he had barely sat down at the table before he started insulting America, Hollywood, Americans in general and me in particular. The exchanges between courses went something like this…

EA: So, you have sixty writers who teach for your Act One?
BN: Yes.
EA: (sniff) I am amazed that there are sixty writers in Hollywood who have something to teach.

EA: So what are the movies that some of your Act One instructors have worked on?

I named five or six films like X-Men, X2, Hoosiers, Rudy, What Women Want, Where the Heart Is, Remember the Titans, Batman Forever, Return to Me. None of which were known to the EA. Finally, I mentioned Braveheart

EA: Ah, at last a film of some note.

So, - okay, a little wickedly – I asked him to name the movies had made. He noted that he had collaborated on one project with Maia Morgenstern who plays Mary in TPOTC. He asked if I had seen that project.

BN: No, I haven’t seen that.

EA: (looking away with disgust) Americans!

BN: (with growing annoyance) When you didn’t know the films I mentioned, I did not say, “Europeans!” like you were ignorant.

EA: Because that I have not seen those Hollywood films is a reason for pride.

In the course of the dinner, I noted to the other civil people at the table, that I often encourage young filmmakers to master the work of one American Master at a time.

EA: (loud sniff): Such a term! ‘American Master.’

BN: (Slapping foie on bread)….like, for example, Hitchcock –

EA: Hitchcock was not a good director. He went to America because he couldn’t make it as a director in Europe.

BN: (tearing off chunk of bread with teeth) In one hundred years, people will still be watching Hitchcock. Whereas, you and I will be forgotten.

EA: (disdainful shrug) It is a pity.

He went on to opine the next day that anything the masses like is ipso facto lowly and unworthy of attention. It was fascinating to me how infuriated I became being around this kind of attitude.

BN: (smouldering to self) There's never a guillotine around when you need one.

I will blog more later about more serious stuff. Particularly, more on the whole Europe vs. America thing. In brief, I can say that they don’t hate us really. But, as a group, I found that even Christian Europeans tend to be shruggingly anti-Semitic -- or, at least, if WE said the kinds of things they say, it would be considered anti-Semitic in America. I trust I make myself obscure.... Even now, with the aroma of the Nazi’s furnaces still wafting in the air. And so, U.S. support for Israel is the real lynchpin. I had no idea.