Archive for October, 2011

Don’t believe everything you hear

October 28, 2011

The first time I visited Marrakech was in the spring of 2003, in the company of my friend Dan, who’s full moniker, Daniel Moresco Pierce, I’ve envied since the day we met in Malaga a few years earlier. So much more distinguished than the mundane Derek Workman.

Dan is an illustrator, (and to my mind his series The Fridge is the definitive cartoon series featuring cheese and vegetables), and a short time before we met, he and his missus, Amanda Innes, had just finished overseeing the restoration of Riad Maizie, a delightful oasis of calm in the Medina, before there became an abundance of oases of calm in the ancient heart of the city. Amanda, amongst her many skills, is a top-hole style and design writer (author, as she depricatingly describes herself, of twenty-seven books about cushions), and in a couple of years hence her book Cinnamon City – Falling for the magical city of Marrakech would be named as one of the top ten yarns of the year by the Daily Mail.

But this story isn’t about Dan and Miranda, although I could chat forever about them, given the chance. No, this is about a totally different animal than an illustrator or a writer.

On a morning warm in the sun, although still a little cool in the shade of the narrow souk streets, I wandered off to the outskirts of the Medina, away from the early tourist bustle of Jemaa el Fnaa. There’s nothing quite like sitting and gawping at the passing parade, and as I sat outside a crowded café having a cafe au laite – you need to take a break from mint tea sometime – an English voice asked if they could take the empty seat at my table. After years of living in Spain I was a bit startled; you don’t do that sort of thing here, a table in a cafe or restaurant is the gastronomical equivalent of an Englishman’s castle. But this being in the Arab world, I politely acquiesced.

Inevitably, my coffee companion and I got into conversation. The chat followed the usual lines of where are you from, been here before, are you on holiday, etc. but it was his answer to the last question that brought me up short. My answer had been simple; a bit of a break and to see somewhere new, but Tom (as was his name) was in Marrakech to record his feet. I kid you not, but to be fair, it was the sound of his feet that was being recorded, not his feet themselves. He was a Foley artist, which to me didn’t mean a thing, but if Tom and his fellow artists didn’t exist, almost any movie, radio and TV programme or advert would loose half the impact our ears absorb.

When you see Colin Firth walking across his voice coach’s floor in The King’s Speech, Meryl Streep beating eggs into a bowl in Julie and Julia, the story of TV cook Julia Child, or the rustle of silken robes just before the heroine of a blood-lust horror movie succumbs to the hacking and slashing of a Freddie Kruger-like character, the actions are theirs, but the sounds are those of an un-named Foley artist. Pages being turned, squeaky doors opening and closing, a cup placed on saucer when The Queen finishes a cup of tea, (or in the case of our dearly departed Queen Mother, an empty G&T glass being placed on a table), all those sounds are the work of the Foley artist. Their work helps to create a sense of reality within a scene. Without these crucial background noises movies feel unnaturally quiet and uncomfortable.

It would be very easy to dismiss the Foley artist as a wannabe actor who never quite cut the mustard, but that’s far from the truth, and the top Foley artists are highly regarded specialists in their field.

It began in 1927, when Jack Foley, who had been working for Universal Studios since 1914, the heyday of silent movies, was asked to be part of the sound crew of Show Boat, Universal’s answer to The Jazz Singer, the first ‘talkie’ ever made. The microphones of the time could only pick up dialogue, so Foley and his crew projected the film onto a screen and recorded a second audio track of the actions to capture the live sounds. Their timing had to be perfect so that footsteps and closing doors would sync with the actors’ motions in the film.

My new-found friend Tom was recording the sound of a man walking through Arab streets for a film about Egypt (as with many productions, a scene is never quite where you think it is), and it was a lot cheaper to send him and a crew to Marrakech than to Cairo.

So when you watch Sex in the City or any other movie purporting to be either about or filmed in Morocco, don’t assume that the sounds of jangling bracelets or swishing curtains you hear are being made by Sarah Jessica Parker or Kim Catrall. They could be a colleague of Tom’s shut away in a dark studio somewhere in downtown L.A.

Find out more about Riad Maizie

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.

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Talk to the hand

October 26, 2011

Talk to the hand

A couple of years ago I was with a friend in the Medina in Marrakech. She’d successfully bartered her way to ownership of a very attractive rug, and was feeling pretty pleased with herself. The salesman was all smiles and compliments until my friend made a gesture which, to you and I would indicate that, “Great, everything’s fine, we done good!” She smiled and put her thumb up. Instantly the salesman’s jaw dropped and his eyes glared wide. He bundled the rug at her and sharply turned his back, much to the distress of my friend, who realised she’d done something wrong, but for the life her didn’t know what.

Imagine you’d stuck your middle finger up to an American; basically you are saying, ‘screw you’, ‘up yours’ or, as a Brit might say, ‘sit on that and wiggle’. That’s exactly what my friend had said, albeit unwittingly, to the carpet salesman. So, far from showing her pleasure at a deal well done, she was telling him to stick his business where the sun don’t shine. Best not to do it in Latin America and West Africa, as well as Greece, Russia, Sardinia, the south of Italy, either.

Travel certainly broadens the horizons and can provide a fund of uplifting experiences. Interacting with people is the best way to understand different cultures, societies and ways of life, but if you visit non-English-speaking countries and you don’t understand their language, you have to fall back on body-language and gestures. The problem is that some gestures have a completely different meaning in one country than they do in another. Not only could your intended message get lost in translation, you could actually end up offending someone or getting yourself into a difficult situation. Some simple everyday gestures that we take for granted can get you into big trouble elsewhere in the world.

Years ago, I was working in Athens at a time when the English football team were playing an international game in the city, on the same day that Greece was playing away elsewhere. England won 5-0, the Greeks got hammered. That night hoards of England supporters roamed the Athenic streets chanting, ‘Five-nil, five-nil’, and thrusting their hand, with the palm open and the fingers extended to represent the number five, in the face of any male Greek they could find. When the Greeks started battering hell out of the visiting team’s supporters, the Brits thought they were just very bad losers. They might well have been, but the one thing you never do to a Greek male, whether you’ve just won a football match or not, is stick an open palm with fingers extended in his face. It’s known as a moutza, and is one of their most traditional insults, telling the recipient to ‘eat shit’. The gesture comes from Byzantine times, when people would smear excreta on the faces of prisoners as they were dragged through the streets.

Another gesture that doesn’t go down well in the Arab world is the A-okay sign, making a circle with the thumb and forefinger and extending the other fingers outwards. Like the thumbs up, we mean it to imply that everything is good, fine, okay, and is used to communicate between sub-aqua divers, when shouting, “Yes I’m fine, thanks,” isn’t really an option. But what’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander, as Suzanna, a friend in Fez, found out when she wanted to show the workmen restoring her riad that all was going great. She made the A-okay sign, and was surprised when the men showed obvious shock, and not the smiles she expected. Without realising it she’d told them they were a set of arseholes, or, in the worst case scenario, they were all homosexual. The circular shape of the gesture is seen to represent the anus, with all the unwholesome connotations it brings to mind, and you would never, ever use the sign in Brazil, Germany and a number of Mediterranean and Arab countries. There is the apocryphal story of President Richard Nixon arriving on an official visit to Brazil, which received an enormous amount of media coverage. As he stood at the top of the gangway he put both his hand in the air and made a double A-okay sign. While Suzanna only offended a handful of chaps, Nixon told the whole of Brazil that they were a set of arseholes and poofters. History doesn’t record how successful his talks were. It’s also an insult in France, although not quite such a serious one, as it signifies something or someone as being worthless. Not a good way to show your appreciation after a delightful dinner.

The corna (making a fist and extending the fore- and little fingers) may be the thing to do at heavy rock concerts, but in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Colombia, Brazil, Albania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, it’s seen as saying to someone he’s a cuckold and his wife is cheating on him – although residents of these countries seem happy enough to use it at football referees. Curling your finger toward you as a “come here” sign is perceived as derogatory in many South East Asian countries. This gesture is commonly used for dogs in the Philippines so when used for a person, you would be implying that you see them as something inferior. What’s worse, this gesture could get you arrested, and to prevent you from using it again, the authorities could break your finger.

Perhaps there might be a new guide book here. It’s unlikely we need another Guide to This That And The Other, or a phrase book that tells you everything you will ever need to know about asking for a postage stamp in Swahili. A picture book of offensive hand gestures might just save you getting your head kicked in Athens.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, www.derekworkman-journalist.com , and Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.

Half a head is NOT better than no head at all

October 19, 2011

It’s almost two o’clock, the beginning of the Spanish lunch break, and I stop off at Valencia’s Mercado Central to pick up something tempting. The gorgeous early nineteenth-century monument to gastronomy is said to be the oldest covered food market in Europe, although as it’s the market authorities who say so, (as those who run Barcelona’s La Boqueria also say about their own market), who am I to argue?

Even if I’m not buying, I always nip in for a look when I’m in this neck of the woods, the Barrio del Carmen, the Medieval centre of the city. Until a few years ago it was stocked with basically local meat and vegetables brought in from the huerto, the market gardens that enclose three sides of the city, and fish fresh from the Mediterranean that shimmers along the fourth. These days, though, the market has gone seriously up-market, and scattered amongst the stalls are chi-chi delis that bring the gastronomic world to the Valencianos doorstep. (Although de we really need a stall selling eighteen different types of salt?)

Fortunately, despite the world acclaim for Ferran Adrià and his now demised restaurant, el Bulli, the Spanish people in general aren’t especially experimental in their tastes, and there are still plenty of products available that would have been found in la cocina de la abuela, grannie’s kitchen. Pigs heads with their tongue lolling sideways sit on countertops; percebes, a barnacle that looks like the tiny cut-off stump of an elephant’s leg, much prized and expensive, (although having tried it a couple of times I can’t work out why), nestle on mounds of crushed ice; plastic washing up basins full of fresh snails, a stall that sells nothing but garafon, tabella, roget and ferraura, the beans needed to make a true paella Velenciana, (the iconic Spanish dish originated in the Valencian huerto), and the fish stalls with their net bags of clotxinos, tiny succulent local mussels.

I decide I can’t be bothered to cook, so I take a seat at Palomo, one of the open-fronted diners along the facade of the market that have been the main-stay of working class lunches in the barrio since Noah was a lad. Pots of bubbling garbanzos, pans of rich brown lentejas, long narrow trays of oven-baked aubergines and stuffed green peppers. I order a plate of fideua, similar to paella but using fine pasta instead of rice,and a glass of white wine that justifies the old Spanish saying, los mejores blancos son tintos, the best whites are reds.

What isn’t on the ‘point and pick’ menu today is cabeza de cordero, half a sheep’s head roasted in the oven with potatoes and onion. For some obscure reason, that’s only available on Sundays and the many public holidays that bring the country to a grinding halt too many times a year.

It’s a common site to see raw sheep’s head with their demonic pop-eyed look sitting at the back of butchers fridges, though I’d always assumed they were for making stock, in much the way I’d use a chicken carcass. I’d never tried the cooked version until earlier this year, when a friend suggested I give it a go after we’d been lamenting the price of food in what was once a country where you almost never thought of eating at home.

That was the reason for my first visit to Palomo, about the only place in the city that still serves the dish. Alongside a battered oven tray of pigs feet, (tried them once – never, ever again), was a similar tray with one remaining half sheep’s head tucked forlornly in the corner. “You’re lucky”, I was told. “It’s the last one.” which made me think that being unlucky isn’t always a bad thing.

As well as the last half-head, I got the last seat at the counter, and ordered a beer to fortify me. The dish was placed in front of me and I stared down at it. It couldn’t stare back because the eye had popped during cooking, but the skin had peeled back from the teeth to reveal a hideously evil grin. I flipped it over, not wanting to share its morbid joke and to avoid the skeletal glare of the empty eye socket.

We hear of people asking photographers to make sure they get their ‘best side’; that was the sheep’s ‘best side’. The teeth on the inside were also bared, so not only didn’t I escape the demonic grin, but I was presented with half a well-browned roast brain, which ranks along with pig’s trotter as my favourite dish to scrape off a plate into a waste disposal unit. I flipped it back.

To be fair, the cheek meat was delicious, but sheep have very small cheeks, barely enough to fill a finger-loaf sandwich.

I thoroughly enjoyed the potatoes, though.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, Derek Workman – Journalist , and Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.