where’d all the good people go?

In the song “Good People,” Jack Johnson asks, “Where’d all the good people go? / I’ve been changing channels I don’t seem them on the TV shows.”

After a fortnight that has seen both tragic catastrophe for Boston and minor inconvenience for me, I can tell you that I know exactly where the good people are.  They’re all around us.

Last Monday, I was eating dinner at home when a friend gchatted me and asked if I had seen the news.  I quickly plugged into all of the media outlets I could get my hands on and learned that there had been two explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Luckily, I confirmed pretty quickly that all of my friends and family were safe.  But as the events of the week unfolded, and images of bloodied victims at the scene, a shut down Copley Square, and army tanks rolling through deserted Watertown streets dominated my computer screen, I felt a strong pull toward the other side of the Atlantic.  My city was calling my name, and it felt stranger and stranger to be so far away.  I know now that my homecoming in late June, which was already slated to be emotional, will send an extra shiver down my spine.  I also know exactly where I will celebrate July 4: watching the fireworks and listening to the Pops alongside the Charles, enjoying my beautiful city with my friends and fellow Americans.

The tragedy was all over the news here in Madrid as well, and the kindness I received from concerned friends, colleagues and students about my loved ones back home helped ease the pain a bit.  Of course their kind words were nothing compared to the outpouring of heroism seen in Boston.  Runners finished the race and continued on to local hospitals to give blood.  Emergency officials and regular people ran straight to victims’ aid with no concern for their personal safety.  Later, the Chicago Tribune sent pizza to the Globe to help energize tired journalists, and the Yankees and other teams around the league played Sweet Caroline as a tribute to the Sox and Boston.  David Ortiz swore on national television, and the director of the FCC chose not to fine him because of the emotional support his words gave the city.  There are billions of people in the world.  Some of them are evil.  But most of them are far from it.

While I don’t intend in any way to compare the horrific events in Boston last week to a tiny personal problem I recently dealt with (I’ve gone back and forth on whether to share them in the same blog post at all), I think that the stories show the same kind of humanity, though on incomparable scales.  So I’ll continue, as long as you know that I know these two events really can’t be compared.  After dropping my cell phone in the toilet and navigating Spanish customs and other bureaucracy to finally receive my brother’s old phone in the mail, I went to get the phone unlocked and was subsequently screwed over, lied to and laughed at by the employees at the store.  Amid a nine-day annoyance of red tape, rudeness, and thus, phonelessness, I was blessed with offers from friends to give the jerks a piece of their minds, as well as above-and-beyond kindness from the man at my phone company’s store, who bent the rules, gave me a discount, and offered not-in-the-job-description help in dealing with the phone unlocking guys.

And when doubt still remains about the goodness in the world, we can always look to children to find innocence, big ideas and even bigger smiles.  In honor of El Día del Libro (Book Day, which celebrates literature on the anniversary of Shakespeare’s and Cervantes’ death) on April 23rd, two of my seventh grade classes cowrote a story with fifth graders at my mom’s school in Massachusetts.  As paragraphs, illustrations and voice recordings were sent back and forth across the pond, we ended up with a hilarious and adorable story about multicultural Mr. Potato Heads.  My colleague Elena compiled it all into a beautiful online format, which can be seen here.


semana santa 101

Before I write anything else: No, it’s not the KKK.  The Spaniards had these robes and hats first.

Semana Santa, or the days spanning from Palm Sunday to Easter, are some of the most important of the year for Spanish Catholics.  In a country where religiosity is much lower than it has been in the past, the traditions for this particular holiday are still going strong.  While the holiday is celebrated all over the peninsula, it is most famous and extravagant in Andalucía, although some argue that it is purest in the region of Castilla y León, just north/northwest of Madrid.

I had ten days off for the Easter holiday, and rather than jetting off on another international adventure, I stayed in the country, traveling north to various cities and towns in Galicia and then south to Sevilla and Granada.  Since I studied abroad during the fall semester, this was my first Semana Santa in Spain, and I had no doubt that despite my Jewish upbringing and now atheist viewpoints, I wanted to experience Holy Week in Andalucía.  Lucky for me, a good friend of mine has a palco (special reserved seating; there’s a waitlist comparable to Red Sox season tickets) in the family, so we were able to get a great view of the processions.  Even without VIP status in Granada, I had no problem seeing the spectacle up close and personal there as well.

Dressed up at the palcos with my friend Isabel

Dressed up at the palcos with my friend Isabel

The palcos (reserved seating) in Sevilla’s Plaza de San Francisco

The palcos (reserved seating) in Sevilla’s Plaza de San Francisco, part of the official route

The basics
Each procession is under the domain of a different church.  They leave from and return to their home church, so naturally each follows a unique path; however, there is an official route that all of them pass through at some point during their trek around the city.  In one procession, you will usually see two floats (or pasos): one of Jesus Christ in one of the stages of the Passion, and the other of the Virgin.  Different churches wear different colors and have different music, numbers of participants, and sometimes numbers of floats (one rather than two).

The nazarenos
These are the people who you probably think look like the KKK.  But, as I mentioned earlier, the KKK were the ones who ripped off Semana Santa for unclear reasons (ironic, because one of the many things they’re against is Catholicism).  The nazarenos are penitents, which is one of the reasons they cover their faces; some even walk barefoot as a way to show their repentance.  They carry flags, banners, crosses, and/or long candles held across their bodies.

The costaleros
These are the men who carry the enormous heavy floats during the processions, which can last up to 14 hours, though they switch off periodically.  As the floats have long velvet skirts around them, onlookers can only see the costaleros’ feet shuffling slowly in unison as the paso gently sways down the street.


A costalero weaving through the procession to take his place under the float

The band
Each procession is accompanied by a marching band, which plays different music according to the float, alternated with periods of simple drumbeats.


The important exception is El Silencio, a one-float procession of Jesus on the cross.  As the name suggests, the procession is conducted in complete silence, to honor the solemnity of the moment the float depicts.  The streetlights were turned off in the main square where I watched El Silencio in Granada, and thousands of spectators shh-ed each other even at the slightest whisper.   Buddhist or Catholic, pious or atheist, the moment sends chills down one’s spine, period.

El Silencio (in Granada)

El Silencio (in Granada)

Children’s participation
People of all ages, from toddlers to grandparents in wheelchairs, participate in the processions.  In some, small children were dressed as nazarenos, while in others, they wore similar clothing without the hat and face covering, and walked around, making sure all of the nazarenos’ candles were lit.  Children in the audience also play a role: asking the marching penitents’ for candy and small pictures of Christ and the Virgin, and comparing their loot with one another.  It is also traditional for children to bring a ball of aluminum foil to the processions and hold it under nazarenos’ candles to catch the dripping wax and thus slowly increase the diameter of the ball.

Women’s participation
Many of the nazarenos were women, yet there is also a special role only for females: dressing in mantilla.  These beautiful silk head coverings were more common hundreds of years ago, but now they are reserved for Semana Santa, weddings and other formal occasions.


In addition to gawking at the beauty and intensity of the Semana Santa processions, my vacation week included attending ten minutes of Palm Sunday mass in the famous cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, climbing up the only still functioning Roman lighthouse in La Coruña, tasting all kinds of seafood in small towns along the Galician coast, enjoying the best mollete de jamón y tomate ever in Sevilla, and leisurely taking in the hippy, andaluz, and tapas-obsessed culture of Granada.  Semana Santa is ‘cursed’ in terms of weather, and this year it took place during the rainiest March in Spain in 66 years (the rain in Spain did not stay mainly on the plain), but soaking boots and frizzy hair never killed anyone.

(Full disclosure: this crash course in Spain’s Holy Week comes from personal observations in Santiago de Compostela, Sevilla and Granada, supplemented by conversations with Spaniards and some basic additional research.  It is by no means an authoritative or exhaustive description of the holiday’s history and tradition).