Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Q&A With Our Study Leader for Spain and Portugal

Here, Barbara York, former head of the Smithsonian Journeys International Division, speaks with Study Leader Lana Harrigan about the food and culture of Spain and Portugal, among other things.

Barbara York: As someone who has an interest in food, do you find food a particularly good way to explore and understand a culture?

Lana Harrigan: Absolutely. I’ve always been drawn to good food, but I’d never really understood—until I began to travel—that it is an essential conveyor of culture. In our food and drink lie glimpses of our history as well as our culture. In America, the Boston Tea Party is a perfect example. A simple beverage became a symbol of political oppression and a nation’s desire for freedom. With our high-speed lives, fast food has become an icon that defines one aspect of our current culture. Spain, on the other hand, still stops for lunch. When my fellow Smithsonian travelers and I sit down to a two-hour lunch of traditional foods in a shadowy restaurant, nestled amongst the narrow, twisting streets of medieval Córdoba, we truly experience Spain, its history, and its culture. When I eat bacalhao in Lisbon, it conjures up Portuguese history and fishermen braving Atlantic waters in their brightly painted boats. When I bite into a morsel of roast leg of lamb glazed with honey and dates, Moorish Spain comes alive. If food were only calories for survival, all cultures throughout history would not have gone to such lengths to prepare special food for special occasions. In all my Smithsonian lectures, I mention the food of the peoples who settled the Iberian Peninsula. Knowing what and how people ate in times past is another way to know them—and to connect with them across the centuries.

BY: In your experience, what’s most rewarding about guiding Smithsonian travelers?

LH: Smithsonian travelers are not ordinary tourists. It’s not often a person has the opportunity to spend almost two weeks in the daily company of people interested in everything. Lecturing stimulates interesting questions and discussions, which always makes traveling enjoyable. I love making new friends on the tours and marvel at how quickly the groups build friendships. It’s hard to say goodbye. In addition, I get a lot of pleasure from introducing Smithsonian travelers to places I have always found irresistible. The enthusiasm of my Smithsonian traveling companions makes each sight new to me every time I visit. I’m often asked if I tire of going to the same places. Never. When I watch someone experience flamenco dance for the first time or witness the amazement when someone views the splendor of the Alhambra or the mosque at Córdoba, I recall my own first visit to a flamenco show in a gypsy cave in Granada and my astonishment at the magnificent horseshoe arches of Córdoba’s ancient mosque. Through Smithsonian travelers, I get to experience those moments again.

BY: What first drew you to the cultures and languages of Spain and Portugal?

LH: When I was 11, my family and I visited Chihuahua City, Mexico. My sisters and I piled out of the car when we reached the hotel and rushed inside. I came to a dead stop. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was looking at my first Moorish-inspired courtyard. Sunlight poured into the open-air interior patio. The air shimmered. My sisters and I played in that courtyard every day. I think we were the only Americans staying at the hotel. One day we saw some Mexican children, two girls and a boy, just a bit younger than we were. They seemed shy but as interested in us as we in them. I tried out my Spanish, “buenos dias.” They giggled behind their hands and said, “buenos dias.” I had just used up all the Spanish I knew. I was totally frustrated not being able to say anything more. When we left Chihuahua City a few days later, I announced to my mother, “When I go to college, I’m going to major in Spanish.” Six years later, I did, and along the way I added Portuguese and French. I still love languages and Moorish courtyards.

BY: As an author, can you say a bit about the process of taking a historical episode and creating a work of fiction from it?

LH: We often think of history as being factual and historical fiction as being, well, fictional, but the goal of historical fiction is to tell a human truth. First, though, comes serious and in-depth historical research. To find the human truth, you must know as much as possible about the historical events, including time period and place. From those particulars emerge the characters—both the personalities of the historical people and the fictional characters you wish to create. For example, when I researched my novel Ácoma, set in 1598 when don Juan de Oñate set out to conquer New Mexico, I found a list of the contents of a woman’s trunk of clothes on a long inventory list of Oñate’s carts. My mouth fell open when I read the contents of that trunk. A woman had taken satin and velvet dresses with her across miles of desert into the wilds of New Mexico—over four hundred years ago. Women seldom make the history books, but the moment I read the contents of that trunk, I knew that woman. Not only did I know what her aspirations and expectations had been in 1598, I knew what the men’s hopes had also been, and I was able to write their story.

Travel with Lana on our Paradores and Pousadas tour, staying in unique inns across Spain and Portugal. 2009 and 2010 dates available.

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