Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dispatches From Spain: In Spain, soccer is a wild, no-holds barred contest

In Spain, soccer is a wild, no-holds barred contest

January 26, 1989

Alex Diaz-Granados

SEVILLE, Spain (CCIS Program)

When one is in Spain, one must do as the Spaniards do, or so we've been told by the College Consortium for International Studies Center staff when we ask about how to enjoy our free time here.

This applies to everything -- from eating lunch at 2 p.m. and dinner between 9 and 10 p.m. to drinking tall glasses of "cerveza Cruzcampo" (the Spanish Budweiser) with tapas at one of the billions of bars in the city.

And for those of us with a desire to be athletic (even if it's once during a 12-week term), it applies to playing sports.

Because soccer is the national sport here, it was only natural that we, too, would want to catch a little "futbol fever."

Most of the time we watched soccer games on Spanish television, although quite a few of us went to see the Spain-Argentina exhibition game or the Spain-Ireland game, which, of course, was for a spot in the European Cup finals.

Naturally, we wanted to have our own soccer game.

Natural because over here, we see little kids playing on fields (usually hard-packed soil), making moves that would dazzle even Pele. There are also foozball tables or video games with soccer as the "main theme."

But what really got the ball rolling (so to speak) was the pick-up game of sand-soccer at our first out-of-town trip to Mazagon Beach.

There, Juan Dura, director of the CCIS Program, and I were captains of the two teams during a most heavily contested and exhausting match (Ever try playing soccer on a sandy beach?), which my team won.

It could've ended there, but the word rematch spread like wildfire, and for a month all of us were looking forward to the "real" soccer game.

Although I'm not usually athletic, I was one of the most ardent proponents for the second match, having first taken a "general opinion survey" and formally suggesting it to Lisa Dolan, student activities coordinator here.

After all, "my" team had won the "sand soccer" match and I had gotten a taste of the "thrill of victory."

Signs went up on the bulletin board, and two weeks later we had enough players on the sign-up sheet to be able to make arrangements for the Game of the Semester.

"I was looking forward to that game a lot," said Bob Holzweiss, a junior from St. Bonaventure College in New York. "But for some people the timing was bad -- they wanted to go to Morocco that Friday -- so we 'lost' a few good players."

Holzweiss, thinking there would be very few people going to the game, resorted to deception to ensure attendance.

"I was afraid we'd have no game if enough people didn't show up, so I told some people there would be a barbecue afterwards."

Well, whether it was the enthusiasm felt by the group or Bob's barbecue that got at least 20 students to show up at the CCIS Center doesn't matter.

We piled into a bus and headed off to the grandly-named Reina Mercedes Field (Actually, it was one of those dirt fields, with two battered goalboxes at each end.), and at 1 p.m. we were divided into two teams with me on Bob's team.

The game? It was a wild, no-holds barred contest. Most of us had only the basic experience at this (our method being "see the ball, chase it, then kick it."). But what we lacked in skill, we made up for it in determination and enthusiasm.

From a player's point of view, I can say the score seesawed wildly.

And though Dura's effective goalkeeping kept our team from scoring as often as we'd have liked, we still won, 4-3.

It was an exhausting game, too. The field was about 50 meters long, there were no out-of-bounds areas, and we're all sedentary over here. (The few spectators watching the game thought we looked silly.)

But no one cared because we were having too much fun.

And my performance?

I didn't score any goals, nor was I ever close to the goal with the ball. I was too busy chasing after the ball to remember everything I tried to do.

Yes, there were a few injuries, the most serious being a player socked near the eye with a badly aimed soccer ball. Otherwise, just the usual scrapes and bruises.

After the game, we all forgot our rivalry and posed for group photos. I haven't seen any of them yet, but I can tell you this much: Behind our sweaty and dirty sweatshirts, there's a great deal of the camarederie that added a kick to our experience in Spain.

Copyright ©2012 Alex Diaz-Granados. All Rights Reserved.

Dispatches From Spain: Study abroad is more than educational: it’s an experience

Study abroad is more than educational: it’s an experience

Alex Diaz-Granados

(Originally published in the December 1, 1988 issue of Catalyst)

SEVILLE, Spain (CCIS Program)

Over the past six weeks of my stay here in Seville as a participant in the College Consortium for International Studies’ Semester in Spain program, I have come to understand how challenging studying abroad really is. Several other students from this campus are also taking part in this program.

In many respects, studying abroad is no different from studying at our home college or university. We have our schedule set up much like we do in the U.S. with lectures and reading assignments.

We have midterms and finals, of course, although in some classes final exams are given at the director’s discretion. Unlike studying in the U.S., we’re learning about a different country’s history, culture, government and economic system, not by reading about these in a textbook, but by living in it.

“It’s been a great experience for me,” said sophomore Wendy Page, who will be graduating from South Campus in the Winter Term. “I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish and to be more knowledgeable about life in other countries. This program has really been a great step in that direction.”

I, too, have also wanted to come to Spain to experience European culture and history first-hand, having been inspired by all those humanities and history courses I have taken at Miami-Dade.

In addition to the thrill of reporting from abroad, I’ve found what I came looking for, and perhaps more. As I mentioned earlier, studying abroad is challenging in every sense of the word.

I am not just talking about the academic program here, although I have found it to be one of the most difficult yet satisfying ones in my college experience.

There is a great deal more involved here, classes, tests, and term papers aside.

In addition to the basic problems of living in a country with a different language, history, culture and political system, a student abroad can expect to face the following challenges:

Homesickness. This can be overcome with a positive outlook and support from fellow students and the home front. There have been days when most of us here have felt depressed, when we have mailed post cards and letters to everyone we know and no one except parents have bothered to write back.

Culture shock. Believe me, when you first travel to a foreign country, you will be hit by the oh-my-God-how-weird-this-place-is syndrome. I still get impatient with the “let’s close everything down between 2 and 5 p.m. and go home for lunch” system.

Meeting new people. A very universal challenge anywhere, but if you’re going to study-travel abroad, you must make friends both with your fellow students and the natives you come in contact with. One of the nice things about the program is that I’ve met students not only from my home campus but also from colleges and universities from all over the U.S.

Anti-Americanism. Whenever a major power like the U.S. gets to be a country with wealth and influence and the military muscle to back it, all the other nations tend to get resentful.

Thankfully, all of these things can be overcome with a little patience and a lot of determination.

Another thing that I’ve learned about the program is how to rely upon myself. Basically, I’m responsible for everything; I have to pay for my rent, my books and school supplies, monitor my own progress and so on.

It takes a lot of self-discipline to keep yourself from turning a study-abroad experience into a mere tourist excursion. It isn’t really that hard, it just takes a little readjustment of your priorities.

“I’d recommend the program to anyone who really wants to learn Spanish and get acquainted with Spain itself,” said Greg Norell, a student from Texas. “I think it’s the best way to get a feeling for the language and culture.”

The way the program itself is set up is really the key to a student’s enjoyment of the Seville experience. The mixture of academics and extracurricular activities makes studying abroad challenging yet fun, too.

© 1988, 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Battle of Britain: 1969 film is half history lesson, half soap opera

It is late spring, 1940. 

It's been nine months since Adolf Hitler's invasion of Poland plunged Europe into general war. France and Great Britain, which had hoped to appease Hitler the year before at Munich -- and practically gave away Czechoslovakia to Germany in order to stave off war -- have been forced to fight. After a period of uneasy waiting called "the phony war" by the American press, Hitler's armies have quickly overrun Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg and thrown the Anglo-French forces back into France in less than six weeks. British forces are forced to leave their heavy equipment on the beaches and evacuate from the port city of Dunkirk. Only the English Channel, units of the Royal Navy and less than 1,000 fighters stand between Hitler's conquering legions and the British Isles. As the new Prime Minister says in a speech before the House of Commons, "What General Weygand calls the Battle of France is over, the Battle of Britain is about to begin." 

During a 15-year period (1962-1977), the all-star cast recreation of major World War II battles was an expensive sub-genre of the action-adventure/war film category. Undoubtedly spurred by the success of 20th Century-Fox's 1962 mega hit The Longest Day and ending, ironically, with 1977's well-intentioned but widely ignored A Bridge Too Far, the "big cast, big budget" war epics ranged from excellent (The Longest Day, The Great Escape), decent (Tora! Tora! Tora! and A Bridge Too Far), all the way down to dismal (1966's Battle of the Bulge, 1976's Midway). Not only did the law of diminishing returns apply here (as it did with the countless Star Wars knock-offs that hit the silver screen soon after that film became a cultural force to be reckoned with), but the then-ongoing war in Vietnam soured audiences on any film that was in any way favorable to the military. 

Nevertheless, the big-name war epic was embraced by many countries that had participated in World War II, and one of the United Kingdom's biggest contributions was, naturally, 1969's The Battle of Britain, a spectacular if rather uneven mix of historical recreation and fictionalized melodrama that commemorates the decisive defeat of the German air force (Luftwaffe) by the outnumbered fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force in the summer of 1940. 

The movie, directed by Guy Hamilton (who later would be briefly connected with the struggles to bring Superman: The Movie to take flight but was better known for directing a James Bond flick or two), has many things in its favor. First, it's fast paced -- considering it covers a five-month period (May to September 1940) -- and has a running time of two hours and 12 minutes. Second, it boasts some of the best aerial photography ever filmed, employing as many airworthy vintage aircraft that producers Harry Saltzman and S. Benjamin Fisz could acquire (mostly Hurricanes, Spitfires, Heinkel 111 bombers and Messerchmitt Bf 109s). Third, it has a stirring and memorable score by Sir William Walton, with its two dueling themes of a Germanic martial march and the soaring victorious RAF fanfare underscoring the beautifully choreographed aerial battles. Fourth, it has a stellar cast of mostly British stars of the 1960s, including Harry Andrews, Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Curt Jurgens, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Ralph Richardson, Robert Shaw, and Susannah York. Finally, Hamilton and his production team shot the film on location in France, Spain, and the British Isles, attempting -- and mostly succeeding -- to get the period details just right. 

(The one bit of nitpicking about this film's accuracy has to do with the planes, and I mention it here because avid aviation buffs will feel misled if I leave it out, so here goes: 

Because the Luftwaffe aircraft seen in the mostly live-action aerial battles were borrowed from the Spanish Air Force, the Heinkel He-111 bombers and the Bf-109 fighters aren't the exact types flown in 1940. British Rolls-Royce in-line motors replaced their original German-made engines, which means the planes look subtly different from the originals.) 

Nevertheless, in trying to give the audience both a history lesson and some human interest drama by delving a bit into the personal lives of the airmen, the screenplay by James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex seesaws wildly from war documentary (albeit in color) to soap opera dramatics (namely the conjugal conflicts between Canadian squadron commander Plummer and his WAF wife York). Also, the fact that this sort of war epic doesn't rely on a single "lead" to carry the picture but instead scatters its cast in small vignettes on and off the field of battle (or, in this case, in and out of the cockpits) doesn't give the audience a single hero to identify with or follow throughout the whole movie. 

Although some of my fellow reviewers have pointed out that The Battle of Britain's complement of aircraft is limited to five types of live-action aircraft (Hurricanes and Spits for the RAF, He-111s, Bf-109s and two Ju-52 transports for the Luftwaffe), choosing to depict the Ju-87 Stukas with model photography and ignoring the twin-engine Messerchmitt Bf 110 fighter and the Ju-88 medium bomber, I can perhaps live with that, realizing that there might not have been any of those in flyable condition in 1969. Maybe if the film had been shot in the 21st Century with CGI special effects (as in the horrible Michael Bay effort, Pearl Harbor), this "oversight" would have been unforgivable, but considering how vastly different the miniature photography scenes would have looked in contrast to the breathtaking live action aerial footage, it was wise that the producers put their budget where it counted. I -- in contrast to more accuracy-minded folks -- don't penalize the producers for using various variants of aircraft to stand in for their 1940 forbears. Nor do I find fault with the now outdated visual effects; yes, some of the explosions (particularly of crashing planes and the big bombing raid on London at night) look cartoony, but, again, this film was made in 1969, not 2004...or even 1999. 

The MGM 2003 DVD release is a bit lacking in the critical areas of sound (it's okay but not exactly earthshaking) and extra features, since the only such offering is the original theatrical trailer. Heck, it doesn't even bring a chapter list or one of those trivia-filled booklets such as those in the MGM Home Entertainment DVDs of The Great Escape and A Bridge Too Far. Nevertheless, its restoration to widescreen places The Battle of Britain's DVD version head and shoulders above the fullscreen VHS videotape edition. 

© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Monday, January 2, 2012

11/22/63: Stephen King takes readers on a journey across time

  • November 22, 1963 is one of those dates that, like December 7, 1941 or September 11, 2001, has left its mark on the collective memories of Americans who, for good or ill, were alive and at an age to be able to remember exactly what they were doing and where they were when they heard the news that President John F. Kennedy had died an hour after being shot in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza shortly after 12 PM Central Standard Time.

    JFK’s assassination has, of course, been one of the most chronicled and hotly-debated crimes in American history; hundreds, perhaps thousands, of non-fiction and fiction books, articles, documentaries and movies have been produced since the mid-1960s, each one with its own spin on how and why the 35th President of the United States was murdered as he rode in a motorcade through downtown Dallas on the last leg of a political trip to Texas.

    Along with the many non-fiction books that stick to the “Lee Harvey Oswald-did-it-alone” account, there are many more “conspiracy theory” works that point the finger at various possible suspects – the Mafia, rogue government agencies, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, former President Richard Nixon and even Fidel Castro have been fingered as the authors of Kennedy’s murder.

    The Kennedy assassination has also been at the heart of novels, short stories and even TV dramas – some, like Don DeLillo’s Libra, focus on Oswald’s life and personality quirks, while others, such as the 1986 Twilight Zone episode Profile in Silver, are science fiction fantasies that ask “What would happen if someone were to use time travel to prevent the President’s murder?”

    (In that episode, Lane Smith plays a distant descendant of the late JFK who, as a historian from the future, uses time travel to save the President’s life, only to have to reverse the good deed when history gets seriously disrupted.)


    In Stephen King’s 2011 novel 11-22-63, Profile in Silver’s basic scenario is played out on a truly monumental scale when the “master of horror” takes elements from two different literary genres – science fiction and alternate history – and meshes them into his own body of work.

    The novel’s main character – and first-person narrator – is Jake Epping, a likeable high school English teacher from a Maine town called Lisbon Falls. Jake is in his early 30s and recently divorced, and in addition to his regular daytime schedule at Lisbon High School, earns extra income as a night-time GED instructor to adults.

    In the prologue, Jake is emotionally affected by an essay written by Harry “Hoptoad” Dunning, the school’s janitor. The theme Jake had assigned is “The Day that Changed My Life,” and Harry’s essay is a chilling account of how his father had murdered his mom and two brothers, battered his sister into a coma and eventual death, leaving Harry himself with a serious injury to his leg (hence the nickname Hoptoad).

    As in many Stephen King stories, this event – seemingly trivial in the greater scheme of things – is seminal to the plot of 11/22/63; indeed, Harry’s ensuing graduation from night classes is the catalyst that sets up the main story of the novel.

    One of Jake Epping’s friends in Lisbon Falls is diner owner Al Templeton, who inexplicably is stricken by a fatal case of lung cancer seemingly overnight two years after Harry Dunning graduates from night school. Knowing that he is dying, Al summons Jake to his diner and reveals a secret: at the rear of the panty there is a portal that leads to the past – if you enter it, you emerge – every time – on Tuesday, September 9, 1958 at 11:58 AM and – measured in the “present” – come back to find that only two minutes have elapsed no matter how long you stay in the past

    Al tells Jake that ever since he discovered – purely by accident – this time slip, he has been trying to change history is both small ways – altering a local resident’s life in a positive way – and significant ones, including living in “past-time” Texas to intercept a Marxist-inspired ex-Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald before he can use a surplus Italian Army bolt-action rifle to shoot JFK from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

    Apparently, though, Al has run into a insurmountable obstacle that prevents him from his self-appointed mission to save Kennedy, so he enlists (a dying man’s request, as he puts it) Jake to carry on, believing that if JFK lives, many of the tragedies that occurred in the ‘60s and after never occur and history will be changed for the better.

    One of the lessons Al shares with Jake is that while historically insignificant events are fairly easy to tweak, big ones – such as the events in Dallas on that fatal Friday in 1963 – are “obdurate” and seem to toss up defenses to prevent any tampering. Al’s cancer, for instance, seems to have been caused by history’s obduracy, or so the diner owner thinks.

    Despite some misgivings, Jake agrees and takes on the “save JFK” crusade. Arming himself with Al’s stash of “past-time” money (and a few other items that will help a 2011 man live in the Eisenhower-Kennedy years) and creating a new persona with the alias George Amberson, Jake makes several round trips to and from 1958, where he makes a “practice” reset of the present by traveling to the small town of Derry, Maine and attempting to save Hoptoad Harry’s family from bring murdered by Frank Dunning.

    If Jake can change his friend Harry’s destiny in a positive way, he thinks, he stands a good chance of being able to crack through history’s “obduracy” and make a cosmically significant change in world events. But as his friend Al found out, causing history to reset has unintended consequences. One mistake – no matter how tiny – can have a plethora of ramificatons……..

    My Take: It’s been a very long time since I have read a Stephen King novel, so I was unsure if I would find 11/22/63 to be as good as its rankings in the New York Times’ bestsellers’ list seem to indicate or if it would be the kind of King novel that I’d read for a bit and then put aside (as what happened with Dreamcatcher and The Tommyknockers) and never finish.

    Fortunately for me, I happen to be fascinated by stories about either time travel or alternate history. I’m also intrigued by the story of the Kennedy assassination, even though I am not a “conspiracy theory” buff and tend to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, was JFK’s murderer. These two reasons, and not 11/22/63’s current rank in the bestsellers’ list, are why I decided to give Steve-O a chance to chill and thrill me with one of his big, meandering novels again.

    Although King has tackled science fiction in a few short stories and novels (Dreamcatcher, for one), I don’t think he has ever written a full-fledged novel which incorporates two SF sub-genres – time travel and alternate history – until now.

    Interestingly, King clearly avoids “techie” SF time travel ideas along the lines of futuristic settings; there are no time machines – such as the one used by the protagonist of A Portrait in Silver – or any spaceships doing the Star Trek “slingshot around the sun” effect as seen is The Voyage Home.

    In 11/22/63, the “time slip” in Al’s diner simply exists. The novel does delve into its existence and how it affects the various historical possibilities, but the reader will have to discover those neat concepts on his or her own.

    However, I will say that despite King’s habit of making his “big novels” a bit longer than absolutely necessary – the story does get a bit “saggy” in the middle part – 11/22/63 is a very interesting attempt to blend elements of Stephen King-style horror, American history - including cultural history – and science fiction.

    Not only did King and his researcher – a guy named Russ Dorr – do a lot of homework on the JFK assassination (certain key figures, such as FBI Agent James Hosty, as well as Lee Harvey Oswald and his Russian wife Marina, are supporting characters), but events from the Cold War before Kennedy became President, prices of grocery items, TV Guide listings and all sorts of minute details from the time period appear in the pages of 11/22/63.

    Obviously, attention to detail is what sets a good alternate history novel aside from mediocre ones, and 11/22/63 is full of little ones that make the story seem authentic. A newspaper in 1963, for instance, is said to have cost a dime. (In one early chapter, King’s alter ego Jake tells us that a hair cut in 1958 small town Maine costs 40 cents.)

    All in all, 11/22/63 is an entertaining and engrossing novel that should have a successful crossover effect. Long-time fans will like how King manages to work in sly – and not so sly – references to some of his other novels (I noticed a few subliminal allusions to Christine and The Dark Tower, and Jake arrives in Derry sometime after the 1958 events depicted in It), while casual readers or alternate history buffs will enjoy the nostalgia-evoking story that seeks to answer one of history’s biggest What If questions.

    © 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved