August 9, 2015

Ajo y Agua

2. Ajo y Agua

My Filipino grandfather, Pacifico Garcia, known to us in the family as Papang, would say: "Lean like a tree in the direction that you would like to fall." Later in life, I learned that this was a typical Spanish expression. Spanish is more limited in vocabulary than english and as a result, the language must be used much more poetically. This apparently accounts for the rich abundance of proverbs found in Spain.

Papang sent his nine children to Madrid in the later 1950's to finish their studies, thus conferring the higher status of a Spanish education in post-colonial Philippines as a potential advantage to his offspring. My father was an air crash rescue firefighter in the Air Force at that time. Shortly before that, he was a soldier and survivor of the Pusan Perimeter in the Korean War. He was stationed in Torrejon airbase near Madrid at the time when the dictator Franco first opened Spain to the post WWII world. In Madrid I was born, and even though we left Spain when I was three years old, I had always held Europe and especially Spain as reference point in my life.

Growing up, I leaned like a tree towards the direction of a life that combined Spain and the USA. In the past fifteen years, my wife and I have fallen in that direction when we managed to buy a house in a small village north of Barcelona called Tossa de Mar. It's a long story but suffice it to say that even though many in my Filipino family had immigrated to Australia, over the years they would tend to flock in vacation to this little fishing village in the base of the Catalan Costa Brava, my mother following them and finally, my wife and I too. While the dream is to live six months on one side of the Atlantic and six on the other, in the meantime we do what we can given the opportunities our careers have afforded us. Mostly, we spend the summers there where I paint as much as I can so that my galleries in Europe can have access to my paintings without too much of an expense in shipping. I can't say that this dream has been fully realized, it's a struggle yet to establish this life on firm ground. We still are leaning and still have yet some distance to fall in this direction.

One of the profound delights of living in Spain are the people themselves, so rich in character, deep in history, delightful in culture and expression. They're a bottomless well of inspiration. One such character is my carpenter, Ramon Gascon. Usually back stateside, I build my own panels over which I stretch canvas for my paintings. But in Spain with time at such a premium, I contract this task out to Ramon. In Tossa, Ramon keeps what I call "office hours" (the early evening after work) at one of the local bars, where time, wine, beer and tapas abound. By the end of the 20th century, the main economy of Tossa shifted from fishing to tourism and as a result most of the locals are multilingual. Some are merely competent and some are connoisseurs. Ramon is a man who savors language and a conversation with him usually has one of two modes: either a dissection of etymological roots or savoring song lyrics (he's also a musician) where he likes to luxuriate in this kind of popular poetry.

This summer happens to be a particularly hot one. Week after week has staggered in stifling humidity. As we sat at the cafe during Ramon's office hour, his greeting to a passing local asking how things were going for him resulted in the shrug: "aguantarse". This means roughly, "I'm hanging in there." At that moment, Ramon seized upon the opportunity to broaden my understanding of Spanish. With a gleam in his eye, he looked to me and said theatrically: "Ajo y agua." As he was eager to do, he explained its significance.

Ajo y agua is a condensate of "a joderse y aguantarse." Ramon spent several minutes unpacking its meaning for me. Ajo is garlic and agua is water. One folk cure is to chew some garlic and wash it down with a glass of water. Where a mild medication is suggested, a stronger remedy is sure to follow. A transliteration of ajo y agua results in "go screw and control (or sustain) yourself", or sharper: "fuck and keep your shit together". A better translation is that it means that "one should just put up with it (hard times) as best as one can." Of historical note, this phrase is supposed to have been coined in the dictatorial years of Franco, and its meaning referred to keeping your mouth shut and out of trouble with the thought police. Now it means a shrug of the shoulders, that you are coping well enough.

Joder as an expression is straightforward and direct. We in the States use the pejorative fuck in the same way spaniards use joder. There are many ways to fuck but fucking is really one kind of act, very, very specific, hard to confuse with any other. Singular. Aguantar is much more evasive, subtle and flexible. Aguantar can mean support or sustain or maintain or abide or endure or suffer or weather or brook or stick out or stomach or hold on or hold out or wear or sit down under or ride out or hang out. The two opposing ideas, joder and aguantar, in meaning and suppleness are welded in composite, the distance in their meaning bound in tension.

Robert Hughes wrote about another, nearly identical pair of ideas in the opening pages of his 1992 book, "Barcelona" (p.24, highly recommended). About the character of the Catalans, he singled out the mirrored ideas of rauxa and seny. Rauxa is outburst, chaos, eruption, a sudden release of strong emotion. Seny is sanity, common sense, judgement, level headedness, shrewdness, wisdom, resourcefulness, street smarts, enterprise. A pair, a set of ideas in tension. Dionysis and Apollo, weren't the ancient Greeks also adept at embracing the complementariness of human character? Human beings, in their vision, were tensed between poles. Life was strung between destinies.

Keeping distinctions distinct is one habit of mind. Combining distinctions is another. Distinctions are usually drawn, with a pulling action such as a pencil lead dragged onto the surface of paper or a window blind pulled down. Delineation. Drawn-to. Representation. Erasure might be considered a pushing action as boundaries are blurred and deconstructed. Walls that separate are torn down. Distances are leaped, signs removed. Drawn-away. Abstraction. The act of drawing, of representation, of picturing might be compared to seny, civilizational in a constructive, analytical sense. Erasure by contrast is barbaric, destructive, interpenetrating, fecund... and notably also: remote, conceptual, ideational, abstract. Ajo y agua, a joderse y aguantarse, fucking and keeping one's shit together, the Mediterranean character of rauxa and seny, abstraction and representation: each side is a sharpened and very useful distinction. Each set is also simultaneously, two sides of the same coin.

Posted by Dennis at August 9, 2015 9:52 PM


Enjoyed your story telling plus the lesson in the subtleties of Spanish idioms, Dennis.

Saludos and best wishes,

Nice to hear your feedback, Persi, thanks!


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