Spanish Chronicles: The story of “peasant shoes”

Espadrilles on top of Wires for Soles

Espadrilles – the chic fabric flats/heels with roped soles that have many summers over taken American fashion scene by storm and revolutionized wedged-shoes across the world. While many know these shoes are originally Spanish, few could imagine that in the early 14th century, these soles started out as being the common peasant footwear. 

Antigua Casa Crespo” it reads, with 1881, clearly imprinted on the plaque outside the vintage, wooden doors. I was in Spain, determined to find an espadrilles-maker and here I was standing in front of the most famous and one of the oldest ones in Madrid.

Espadri-what???

*flashback* 

Me: Elisa, I want to go buy espadrilles!
Elisa: Espadri-what???
Me: You know, espadrilles, Spanish people are famous for making them!
 Elisa: *WTF are u talking about look*

Okay, so no one I knew in Madrid had the slightest idea what I was referring to. Espadrilles were just so popular back in the States, and I figured the word must have come from the Spanish – considering the shoes are from there.

Turns out, history has it a bit different than that. In the 14th century, these flats were first recorded as being made in parts of the Basque Country in the south of France and Catalonia. The word “espadrilles” comes from the French word “espadrille“. The root of the word is “espart” which means the wiry type of Mediterranean grass that was used to form the sole of the shoes.

Yet, as production of the worker/peasant footwear grew in popularity across Spain in the next centuries, Spanish people used their own word “alpargatas” – which means a type of wired-sole sandals. Hence, the complete confusion with my Spanish mate :))

Espadri-how???

So then, how exactly, did the Spanish-popularized shoes come to be known internationally under a French/Catalan-originated name?

Sure, you could say, that it was because these shoes were first made in these regions.

But then again,  it was Cas­tañer – a Spanish alpargatas maker established in 1776  that *quote* propelled the shoes into the world of fashion * when he and his wife introduced the “laid-back glamour” shoes to Yves Saint Laurent.

My hypothesis, since I have yet to find anywhere else, why these shoes are not more known as “alpargatas” is that it was introduced to Yves Saint Laurent – and naturally, a Frenchman (and a fashionable, chic one to boot) does what he does best- speak and keep his “français” , if you will.

espa6

Alpagatería Hunt !

*flash forward*

Once Elisa had determined exactly what it was that I wanted, we were off with her 2 friends Elena and Ana to search for this age-old alpargatas maker or alpagatería, where apparently, Queen Sofia and other members of the Spanish Royal Family have regularly visited every summer.

Antigua Casa Crespo” sits on the quiet but chic Calle de Divino Pastor in the Malasaña neighborhood.  The shop has quite the complicated opening times schedule and hence, it wasn’t too big a surprise that we were greeted with closed wooden doors. After all, this was a summer wear, and who was I to expect anything, wearing three layers of coat, standing outside a sandal-maker in the middle of December?

I’m not going to get to see this shop“, I disappointingly thought to myself, when the bold Ana makes a go for it, as she starts ringing the bell. Much to our surprise, minutes later, a man came running down the street, spills out a series of Spanish, disappears through the door, and seconds and a few shackling of wooden panels later, we were inside the charming little shop.

The generous señor who came to our rescue is Maxi Garbayo – the fourth generation of a family that has been making alpargatas since 1836. Maxi’s great grandfather Gregorio Crespo started the alpagatería and with the tradition of children taking their mother’s surname in parts of Spain, the family business went under Maxi’s grandmother maiden name Garbayo.

In the 1970s, Maxi’s father Martin Garbayo introduced a colour-assorted catalogue for his shoes, and created a craze in Madrid, where alpargatas had always been black and white.

Maxi Garbayo

Alpagatería Future?

I hadn’t a clue what Maxi was saying, through his speed-of-lightning Spanish (not that I would understand normal-speed Spanish either *_*), but I could tell from his tiny puff of laughter that he thought I was just this weird Asian in his shop curious about things like how many shoes he makes an hour or where the cords come from.

You’d think a shop made for queens and royals would be way out of your league, but with 6.50 Euro flats and heels at 29 Euros, the shop is quite the quality bargain for anyone looking for handmade espadrilles/alpargatas.

“Business is getting difficult”, Elisa translates Maxi’s words, “I need to keep prices down because Chinese manufacturers are now making these shoes at mass at half the price, sometimes even less. I can’t compete with that” . 

Maxi no longer makes these shoes and neither do his children, they rather only manage the store. One of Maxi’s siblings still make the shoes, with each pair of flats taking around 10 minutes and heels taking several hours to a day.

—————-

Leaving the shop, with my new black alpargatas heels ready for next summer, I start to think that perhaps that was how so many different alpagaterías had died out, purely against the rough competition from cheaper imported counterparts. And yet, at least for this roughly-180-year-old shop, perhaps the  presence of annual royal support and the sheer passion of people for hand-made, traditional espadrilles and alpargatas will keep it going?

Let’s hope so 🙂

Here are more pics of the shop and my Spanish friends! (The pics are not really good quality, since I had only my phone 😦 sorry!)

Plaque in front of Antigua Casa Crespo
Plaque in front of Antigua Casa Crespo
A picture of the original shop in the late 1830s
A picture of the original shop in the late 1830s
Elena, Ana and Elisa inside Antigua Casa Crespo
Elena, Ana and Elisa inside Antigua Casa Crespo
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Food Paradise Awaits Westminster Students

A pizza with pieces of chicken that tasted like a rotten French fry” and “jacket potatoes that are as wonderful as a piece of cardboard”. 

These are some student thoughts on the dishes you’ll find in the University of Westminster Harrow Campus Canteen. As a campus canteen, perhaps the best and only good thing about it is that it’s easily accessible to students. While it offers many large tables for your groups of friends, the tables are pure grime and you won’t exit the place smelling any better either.

As soon as the lunch break starts, make a sprint for the canteen to avoid the horrendous queue. It’ll take you barely a minute to scope out the options of salads, soups and mains. While there are vegetarian options, expect to find the same vegetables and rice every single day.  For all of you carnivores out there, chicken and fish taste about the same as your beans and potatoes.

And if you want ketchup with your chips, that may or may not be available on any given day, don’t hold your breath… you’ll get one small packet, if you’re lucky. A second packet will cost you. Good luck finding a dry tray or a fork for that matter. The next time you dig your plastic spoon into a potato, use two, because they’ll break.

Should you need a bathroom break, hold it unless you want to take a hike to find it. If you want to evade their horrible options, you’re free to bring your own lunch, but pack up 20p to heat them up in the only microwave down the other side of the corridor.

The only saving grace is that they serve food for only 1 hour a day – yes, that is the only time you can find food in this campus canteen that caters to thousands of students. Other than that, a Costa in the corner of the canteen may save you from starving your way through higher education.

To our lovely canteen, we give you 1 bright star!

Sincerely,

Your starved students

A group work from class (Credits to Alexa, Petra, Jada, Elisa and Boryana)

ON THE ROAD : Vernazza, Cinque Terre – Italy’s tucked-away gem

Vernazza, Cinque Terre

Late October of last year, floods swept through this little village and landslides buried its once charming winding routes in 14 feet of mud. I was devastated. It was, after all, my favorite destination in Europe.

Today, I came by a recent CBS report on the small town and how it’s picking up the pieces, recovering after a year. I became nostalgic and found myself spending hours, digging through the memoires of my trip there in 2008.

On the Road this week  is dedicated to the village of Vernazza.

A tucked-away gem

It is one of those places where sun streaks fill your room with warmth, waking you up each morning. You would head for your window to take in the ocean breeze, and as you rub your sleepy eyes away, blurs of colors would pop into vision, before dispelling into a clear, panoramic view of a perfect seaside village, painted picturesquely across the horizon.

This is Vernazza, the 4th of 5 Riviera villages perching on  coast-side cliffs in Italy’s northwestern region of Liguria- facing the Tyrrhenia Sea.The village collective is known as Cinque Terre (Italian for Five Lands) and while I believe it’s a popular summer getaway for Italians, it still remains quite off the beaten track for tourists.

A journey well worth it

After experiencing France’s smooth TGV trains, the bumpy journey on Italy’s crowded local train, where the farthest thing you could see was a co-passenger’s nose hair, was in short, memorable.

To get to Cinque Terre, my study abroad friend, Amy and I, took a 2.5 hour train ride from Nice to Genoa – the capital of Liguria. Another hour landed us in La Spezia, from where it would be possible to take another more local train to any one of 5 villages. We chose Vernazza to be our base, not because it was recommended, but more so for the fact that it was reviewed as being one of the quieter and more isolated of the 5.

All I can remember is the expression of disbelief on Amy’s face, standing there with her huge, 3-week-packed, 4-wheel suitcase, as a local man  pointed up an endless flight of stone steps and said: “Only 400 steps!.

 It took 30 minutes, but we heaved our way through the maze of stairs, barely squeezed our luggage through a tiny red door into our rented room, before standing mouth-opened upon looking out the window. A mosaic of colorful houses tucked between the ocean on one side and slopes of cascading vineyards, akin to Asia’s stairs of paddies on the other, the village clings onto seemingly impossible cliffs.

Vernazza meanders across slopes of vineyards, before edging out to the sea

A village of warmth 

It is one of those places where every neighbor knows the next, people pat your shoulders as you take a stroll down its steep alleys, and at times, creepy old Italian men approach you, in open-arm- I-haven’t-seen-you-in-years gesture:  “Ahhhh Bellissima“. Not many people spoke English, but the smiles were almost contagious.

Down at the beach tucked neatly in the moon arc that is Vernazza, dozens of cats lay lazily, sunbathing while nearby, groups of fishermen peer out to the waves, anticipating their next trip.

It was April, the perfect time to be in Vernazza, perhaps not for a swim yet, but definitely to avoid the crowds of sunburnt Italian tourists, and take in the simple charm and warmth that so characterize this place.

Picking up the pieces

It was heartbreaking to watch how the flood had ravaged Cinque Terre and Vernazza in particular, but today, also very heartwarming to know that the village is slowly shaking itself out of the rubbles.

Do find out more about the ongoing recovery efforts of Vernazza and the Cinque Terre villages at:

My memories attach me most to Vernazza, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t discover the rest of the villages: Monterosso, Corniglia, Riomaggiore and Maranola, as well as the beautiful region around La Spezia. The hikes between the villages are intense but your destinations reward you with beyond anything you could imagine.

Enjoy some more photos of Vernazza!

The stone steps throughout and Vernazza and an unusual flower spotted during our hike
Local residents watch the sea
Morning dew during hike and Amy on one of the many narrow winding routes in Vernazza
Me in front of the section of Vernazza that edges out onto the sea
Hope you get back on your feet soon Vernazza!

Filling in the blank spaces – Coehlo’s “The Witch of Portobello”

To be honest, Coehlo’s “The witch of Portobello” was a disastrous let-down after how much I had enjoyed “the Alchemist”.

Coehlo said he was trying to understand his spiritual side in this book and truthfully, that might have just been its problem. It had too much “sermons” and straight theoretic talk on spirituality and religion, and within the context of such novel about love and finding yourself, many other things would have been of more interest.

On the other hand, it offered ideas which I liked. It was a long story, whose details I would not like to get into, perhaps another time. But the protagonist talked about one particular thing, and that was the idea of ‘blank spaces’, and that we all have them.

People who are missing something in life have many blank spaces, these are the moments between the words that we utter, these are the moments when your thoughts are for a second outside of your mind, these are moments of ‘out of it”s when you’re in the middle of doing something, but you suddenly feel like you’re at a lost…and you don’t know why or maybe you do…but these are the “blank spaces”.

I try to fill these blank spaces with constant things to do and that is because blankness brings in thoughts that I would more often like to block out of my head. And it’s funny because, the protagonist says that the only way to effectively fill the blank spaces is to confront those thoughts, or whatever it was that created that hole, and gap in the first place. But if I were to do so, I wouldn’t even be writing these lines.

And so I continue to work, I continue to read, I continue to write because it helps me to not think about the things that make me feel sad, and alone in the world….and because it helps those blank spaces to go through me more quickly.

My favorite quote in that book because I think it’s true for me and all of us,

“- Q:’Are you happy’

– A:’Yes’

– Q: ‘Do you want more?’

– A:’Yes’

-Q: ‘Then you’re really not happy..?”

And this is exactly where the blank space is –  at our hesitation to answer this last question.

The Tale of the most loyal Dog – Hachiko

Finally built up the courage to watch the original Japanese cinematic depiction of Hachi (Hachikō)- the loyal Akita Inu and one of Japan’s most beloved canine.

A beautifully shot film from 1987.

There is nothing beyond tears to describe into words how profound this is. Here is the link , but be tissue-prepared to meet with the “onion ninja”:

Hachiko Monogatari (The Tale of Hachiko): Vietnamese Sub
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnlJuRjHId4Read Prof. Ueno and Hachiko’s real-life story:
http://www.jpn-miyabi.com/Vol.43/hachiko-1.htmlI only hoped that he had been buried next to his owner instead of being stuffed and mounted in a museum. I haven’t seen the American version, but I doubt it can live up to this, and honestly, see no relevance of Hollywood or Richard Gere to this touching story.

[UK] East End – London’s Street Art Hub

What is it that pops into your mind at the mention of : “London” ?

It might be the iconic Big Ben, the Buckingham Palace, the Tower Bridge, the abundant museums, the Thames river, the immobile Queen’s guards, or the many red double-deckers that dot the streets.Quite shamefully, I have yet to truly discover any of these and after 6 weeks of being here, today was the first time, I actually caught a glimpse of Big Ben.

This past weekend, nevertheless, I finally embarked on a touristic attempt : taking a tour. This wasn’t your conventional double decker sight-seeing tour, but an aptly and appealingly named package called “The Alternative London Walking Tour . A 2- hour walk on a pay-what-you-like basis, this tour won’t bring you through the regal city centre  , but instead,  will weave you through the lesser-seen backstreets of London’s East End.

Here boasts one of the most vibrant and diverse street art scenes in the world

It serves as an urban canvas for famous artists like Banksy and Ben Eine. The tour guide (pictured above), a graffiti artist himself, leads our group of 15 through street branches and alleyways off of Brick Lane – the prominent vein of East End.

You might think of street art as the hiphop culture-inspired type of modern graffiti. In Vietnam, I know that many consider it vandalism and the farthest thing from being art. But London’s East End, opening its wall (legally) to the imagination of many, offers so much more than just graffiti and perhaps, even redefines the concept of graffiti altogether. Its walls are plastered with everything from detailed fine-art masterpieces to massive stick figures, using every artistic influences you could possibly think of: spray-paint  cubism, stencil art, …mere scribbles! It is an urban gallery and for me personally, as visually engaging and even at times more exciting than a stroll through an actual museum.

Our artist tour guide noted something very fascinating to me, and that is, East End is an open gallery, in every sense of the word. It’s open to interpretation, it’s open to the simplest to the wildest of ideas, and it’s even open to modification. Once you set your art onto the streets, it’s for the world to ponder on, love, hate and even change.

This neighborhood, the guide shares, owns its bustling and multi-faceted nature to a history dotted with different waves of immigration.The French Huguenots first came in 1650, commencing a lively textile and crafts industry in the area. 200 years later, the industry would be inherited shortly by the Irish and then prominently by Ashkenazi Jews. The end of the World War II era saw the British government opening up its immigration policy as a revival tactic, through which Brick Lane became home to generations of Bangladeshis until now.

Fun fact: Brick Lane is curry capital of the UK, with a total of 52 curry shops on a single street.

The Brick Lane Jamme Masjid mosque on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane is perhaps the most concrete proof of the area’s diverse history, being the only building in the world that has, in its history, been a protestant church, a Wesleyan chapel, a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and now a mosque.

A multi-cultural centre of communities developing and struggling through their settlements in the UK, the streets here in East End, by the 80s amd 90s, had become a space of expression, where generations of people addressed their feelings, discontent or the social challenges they face in society – with the most obvious being issues of racism and discrimination. From being an outlet of social stress, it now has been branded as an artistic venue – where street artists from all over the world, inspired by their urban environments, come to play.

It was an overall visual treat and a tour that, more or less, revealed the backside of London’s portrait – a side less common to the world, you could say. On a side note, it did take place on one of the coldest days I have experienced in London of yet and we had to give up 2/3 of the way after walking  in the painstakingly rainy and humid cold for over an hour.  I’ll save  more on the tour in our next attempt in the spring and also the amazing vintage markets and gastronomical variety in the area for another post. For now, I leave you with some snapshots of East End’s colorful street art. Enjoy!

[UK] Eat your heart out!

***This post contains some notions and photos that may be offensive and downright gross to some. Please be advised!

I mean, really, if you wanted to, you could literally “eat your heart out”.

A cake exhibition of the same name in London this weekend enticed me by the word “cake” alone, but that was well before I knew that along with the “heart”, i could add to the delectable batch, anything from fingers, brains, feces, and oh of course, the occasional STD warts.

Grossed out? Continue to read, you should not – because this is the farthest thing done to the notion of “cakes” from what you could ever possibly fathom: A bakery showcase inspired by human diseases! The above picture is only the beginning, and yes, it’s all EDIBLE. If you can stomach this, then let’s get anatomical *_*!!!

This is definitely where you should be if one lazy Saturday morning, you suddenly have the appetite for some prostate cancer truffles or just fancy a sip of urine sample and quick breakfast with blood marmalade drizzled on toast. The gruesome showcase, in its second year here in London, is the fruit of Miss Cakehead (aka Emma Thomas) – a PR manager known across UK for her provocative food creations.

To top it off, the showcase unraveled in the Pathology Museum of St.Bart’s Hospital – possibly the last place on earth to work up an appetite, considering the endless jars of actual, donated body parts around you. Aptly situated for the theme, you could say, but definitely not the candy my eyes were hoping for.

Once you can get past the squeamish effects of the 2nd or 3rd cupcake adorned with moles, chlamydia, and genital warts, you truly start to appreciate the craftsmanship behind some of these creations – sugar spinning body parts and the most grotesque of diseases into an artform. Beyond the shock of it all, it’s an event aimed to provoke and educate. I would sum the message up as : “You are what you eat“. If eating some chocolate cigarette butts and a blackened lung doesn’t get you to think twice about your next drag,  then well, I guess…you have a pretty tough stomach 😀

And perhaps the most curious bit of all, did I try any?  Because I think to myself everyday, “yummm, syphilis cupcakes!!“, lol. Well, I don’t really have a sweet tooth and I do have a knack for eating with my eyes, so I wasn’t exactly free of all reservations. I did, however, give in to curiosity in the end. All creations were being sold with funds going to charity supporting the treatment and research into the portrayed diseases. You had an anatomical chocolate cake selling at £350 but considering our modest student pockets, we opted for the £3 “fecal samples” and the £2 “kidney” macaron.

Let me just say: sh*t has never tasted so good *_*!

Here are a couple of snaps from the exhibition, I would advise you to not press your nose against this one.

Blood Marmalade – Drizzle as desired!
Chocolate cigarette butts and ash and lung cancer cookie
STD cupcakes – come and get ’em!
mmm…made from white and milk chocolate…<3
Venus vs. Mars : The Pathology of a Breast Cupcake and Prostate Cancer Truffles
Human anatomy chocolate cake, the head alone is £350
Elisa, Marie, and Wendy with Chocolate Fecal Samples and Kidney Macaron

*NOTE: I just found out that an exhibition of the same concept took place in London in early October, but with meat and it was to promote Resident Evil – it was called the Human Flesh Meat Market , Sweeney Todd much? so you can decide if it’s too gruesome before checking it out here! Enjoy!