Saturday, October 2

Tertuliante por excelencia ...

Literary tertulia

Tertuliante por excelencia. Those of who do not know Spanish may nevertheless surmise that the last two words mean what in English is called ‘par excellence’ (from the French). And tertuliante? Well, simply, a person who engages in tertulias.

So, what then, Lorenzo, is a tertulia?

Ah, so glad you asked. It is a term that encapsulates one of the most attractive features of Spanish culture and a favorite pastime of my own. Though impossible to capture its meaning in a single English word, you can basically think of it as a cross between a literary salon and a coffee klatch, with some of the lofty focus of the former and the relaxed friendly informality of the latter; not as fusty as the salon, a bit less gossipy than the chat circle. No dissertations, no bellyaching about mothers-in-law. Neither overly high-brow nor too low-brow, but just-right-brow, themed chitchat amongst friends.

The history of Spanish poetry, literature, painting, philosophy and cultural movements and currents in general would be unrecognizable without tertulias. Madrid is dotted with the wonderful cafes, taverns, bars and restaurants that hosted such gatherings in the 19th century and much of the 20th (although the term and practice dates back centuries earlier). Sadly, some of those locales have disappeared, and others have become pricey tourist watering holes, but something abides nonetheless. How could it not, when we are talking about tables and bars frequented nearly everyday over decades by some of the country’s greatest playwrights, poets, composers, painters, philosophers, actors, journalists…?

Café del espejo 1845 — Museo de Historia de Madrid
But more than give a tour and history of those delightful spots (I’ll do that in person if you come out here), what I wanted to briefly discuss here is how this pastime of leading lights of Spanish culture spread to the rest of the society. For one did not have to write poems like Lorca or novels like Valle-Inclán to participate in a tertulia. All it takes is a bit of free time and the desire to while it away on a regular basis in a café in the warm company of like-minded friends to discuss a subject of common interest, be it literature, art, bullfighting, music, dance…

And the term has come to host what for me is a luxurious mainstay of Spanish culture, the habit of following all good meals with relaxed conversation, where no clocks tick, and our attention is wholly trained on the voices and banter of our fellow tertuliantes. It is still considered somewhat uncouth for a waiter to pressure diners to wind down the talk, pay and clear the table. I have never seen a “Don’t loiter” sign in Spain, and would have trouble translating the term and explaining the concept behind it for my Spanish friends. I have seen, however, and even been embarrassed by my role in, the almost heroic patience of tired waiters and cooks, holding their growing exasperation on a short stoic leash while standing by and waiting for after-dinner tertulias that just refuse to wind down and stretch well beyond any reasonable work hours. Just try that in a New York City restaurant.

Spain has always struck me as a very conversational culture. There is a love of words, especially the spoken word. After all, most of the people here do adhere to a faith whose sacred text begins “In the beginning was the Word”. Words are important, talk matters. Although when taken to the extreme of all-talk, no-action, it can feel hollow, or when spilled over into the terrain of gossip, it may grate, the notion of the art of conversation still has an important place. More than a can-do society, this is a let’s-talk culture. Since, traditionally, in towns and cities, homes were smaller than families, this need and love for conversation is largely indulged in semi-private nooks of public places, in bars, cafés, taverns, restaurants.

Bar Viva Madrid
Alas, Spain and the rest of the world are changing, Spain perhaps faster than most places. The busy-busy of everyday life is chipping away at the institution of the tertulia. Youngsters SMS text more than converse. Wrds r luzn letrs n chrm. Living always on the run and instant messaging are hustling wordy banter from the table. Many restaurants now want to slot in two or even three dinner parties one right after another at every table. The previously unthinkable ‘no loitering’ signs at cafés may not be far behind.

But blogging strikes me as a seat at a cyber-tertulia. And that is what this whole post is actually about, an introduction to a tertuliante por excelencia. I am referring to Bonnie of Original Art Studio, one of the coziest and most spiritually nourishing café tertulias out there. Whether taking us for a walk in her garden, or a look at her art work and photography, on incursions into the world of psychology and philosophy, or along on her spirited and spiritual forays, Bonnie’s blog always makes for rewarding reading. Hers is a restive and questing mind and she has much to say and teach and show, yet never preaches, proselytizes or pontificates.

And, above all, and this is what makes her such a tertuliante extraordinaire, she has the art of conversation. Often, blog comments are little more than appreciative admiring quips, or brief references to some point made on the blog post. But Bonnie always seems to want to make it a conversation, not a quipfest. She has a knack for drawing people out (she is a psychotherapist, after all) on her own blog and participates actively on the blogs of others, with exchanges that can grow into two, three or several more ‘comments’ by each tertuliante. Seeing the fascinating conversations that result between her and George of Transit Notes, Ruth of synch-ro-ni-zing, Robert of Solitary Walker and others, always makes for stimulating talk, enlightening conversation and, yes, just plain fun.

In recent days, Bonnie has put a lot of admirable effort into conducting interviews with some bloggers of her choosing. The results have been beautiful. The series has allowed me to meet new bloggers for our virtual tertulias, like Kent of Expat from Hell, Meri of Meri’s Musings and Friko of Friko’s Musings (I will not give links to their individual blogs, you can click through to them from Bonnie’s). Other interviews have helped me get a fuller view of the individuals behind blogs I so enjoy: the ever poetic Ruth of synch-ro-ni-zing, who has lately gotten into the alarming habit of making me fall in love with her every time she posts something new; George of Transit Notes, whose posts seem like one new tour de force of art and words after another; Brian of Waystation One, who seems to grow as a person, blogger, writer, poet and friend every day right before our eyes.

Bodegas Ángel Sierra

And today, Bonnie has posted an interview with yours truly, prefaced by some very kind words about this blog and me. You can read it by clicking here and will understand how touched I am by her thoughtfulness and generosity. I really enjoyed doing this with Bonnie. I know I have been fairly anonymous behind my blog and lapis lazuli elephant, and sort of like it that way. But it has been nice to let her brush aside a veil or two. If you have any questions you would like to put to me, I would be very happy to answer them there in the tertulia over at Bonnie’s Original Art Studio.

So go visit Bonnie and see the interview. Enjoy the other ones. And then stay around after the meal for the conversations that Bonnie, our tertuliante por excelencia, generously hosts, guides and energizes. There’s a seat for you at the tertulia. Pull up a chair. Loitering is allowed and welcomed.

El Parnasillo
The photos of various presentday Madrid cafés and bars associated with famous tertulias are taken from the blog Siete Leguas (in Spanish) with neither the knowledge nor the permission of the photographer/blogger, my friend Vicente. After all, what is he going to do; denounce me at the next gathering of our tertulia?


  1. You don't know how a deep internal moan seeps out of me when I read this about the tertulias. I never experienced anything like it, until living in Istanbul. There, the ladies cook and clean in the morning so they can slip out and into someone or other's salon, and drink çay, crochet doilies and gossip. In my 3 short years there, I recognized that longing in me to have such a practice, not unlike sitting on the porch Americans have done in past decades, and even farther back, in parlors. Doing it in public is fun, having someone else wait on you and keep the liquids pouring. I think this is what has grown from that germination via blogging. So for me, your connection between blog salons and tertulias is spot on.

    I admired Bonnie first when reading her comments at George's and here. After back and forths, we finally connected with each other's blogs. I'm still pretty stunned by the arduous and delicious task she has undertaken with these interviews. Her kind of generosity is contagious.

    And so is yours. What I feel here at the pillow is amplification. Whether it's the education I'm going to get in jazz or art, or Spain, or your family history, or how you feel about what other bloggers do and create, the joy you feel in witnessing the beauty that's around you, in all that you do, I feel that I am better, and I want to be better. Your interview is wonderful.

    And thank you for that chill-inducing line about my posts . . .

  2. You and your wonderful site, Lorenzo, are also a tertuliante por excelencia. It is virtually impossible to enter these portals without finding something fascinating to read and think about. Oh how I would love to live in a place where rich conversation, in contrast with blather, is encouraged and valued. I will simply say that conversation with people like you and others in the blogging community has filled a void that previously existed in my life.

    I just read your interview this morning and loved every word of it. I look forward to the continuation of the conversation on our respective blogs and those of our friends in the blogging community. Thanks for this beautiful and beautifully illustrated posting.

  3. . . . that would be a warm chill . . .

  4. Viva los tertuliantes! George, the pleasure is all ours, and likely the closest we will get to the true setting that you describe so well here. Indeed, Bonnie is a gift to all of us. But it doesn't stop there, and she has opened a door for all of us in so many other ways. Claro que si! EFH

  5. was excited to see your interview this morning...and thank you for the kind words...

    i love the thought of conversation during and after seems a lost art here in the states..

  6. Just back from an extended conversation with a friend at a lives for these sorts of conversations, with no aim in mind.

  7. It is an excellent interview Lorenzo and I enjoyed learning more about you.

    It is a shame that all parts of the world are knuckling under the pressure of American culture. At this point in my life I have entered a disconnect from as much of it as I can. I'm trying to put on the brakes as the time now seems to speed by faster and faster. Wait...I'm not through yet!

  8. Oh am I delighted that Bonnie led me over here :)

    Aloha from Honolulu

    Comfort Spiral

  9. Long live the tertulia! I can identify this so readily, from personal experience, in many southern European cultures. But sadly, as you say, in some places it's in decline - under threat from our fast food, fast buck, meretricious, materialistic society. May we always be able to take time,and to talk at leisure (without the ticking clock) about the things that matter. (Without cafe culture, there would have been no Impressionism and no Existentialism in France. Just to take one example!)

    Once again, a beautifully written and constructed piece of writing, Lorenzo - with all your usual trademarks of wit, depth and generosity of spirit. An absolute joy to read. Thank you.

  10. First off, love the history lesson on tertulias. I would probably never leave were I to find one to attend. It does make me jealous you have such places to go and talk.

    I was an English Lit major in college and I wonder sometimes about the written word. I have written letters and sent cards all my life. The letter writing part is becoming a lost art over here. Only one close friend and I continue to do it reciprocally.

    I remember when email became widespread; I was thrilled to hear more regularly from my friends with whom I was still close but from whom I'd moved away. I contented myself that we were still connected and caring and had a quick easy way to communicate and it was in writing!
    Once cell phones came into play, the emails dwindled. Texting became widespread but I was doing that mostly with my sons. My friends do it now in response to my emails which I find very irritating; mostly because it's always a short answer "typed on my Blackberry/iphone/whatever".

    Blogging has opened me up to writing again. I can explore a topic, do research as I once did in college, post photos, promote my husband's photography and I'm finding a group of friends I don't have to meet to know I would like if and when I do.

    I always thought I should have been part of the 1920s exPat group in Paris but, hey, this is pretty okay.

    I will now head to Bonnie's and read her interview with you so I know more about you and your life.

    Hasta luego. Cali Girl

  11. i belong to a book club comprised of four very clever and facinating women and myself. it comes close to what you describe but i know that for one reason or another it doesn't reach the vaunted qualities you describe here. my wish is to one day be immersed in that experience once more. as a university student i took these lovely occasions - dinners followed by wide-ranging speculative sometimes argumentative (but never unpleasantly so) discussions that carried on into the wee hours - for granted. i believed that clever or curious people always had that in their lives. i now know that for the most part this isn't true in north american culture. excellent post lorenzo. steven

  12. You know in Blogland longs posts are considered not quite the thing, some have such 'a short little span of attention'.This was was not one word too long.

  13. Lorenzo, you are indeed a "tertuliante por excelencia," and I am so happy to have found your blog, and to have read Bonnie's interview. I look forward to discovering how you happened upon the lapis lazuli elephant, too!
    Thank you for your exquisite posts, your incisive comments, and your generosity. Long may The Alchemist's Pillow continue!

  14. I want to come back and briefly add (before you respond to comments) that what I experienced in the Turkish salons was clearly much more of the gossipy variety of gathering than the themed and a bit loftier tertulias, which are more like the salons I read about in James and others and have envied for their stimulating conversation.

  15. Beautifully written, and a post so close to my heart.
    Coffee houses, salons , books store gatherings have always been a Big part of my life, no matter where I live I seek out such places,,, text msg, has not erased the inherent human need for close contact and conversation, even if it is on skype- or the virtual world of blogging...

    I suspect the writers in our blogging community will all relate very well to the thoughtful and informative post you write here.

    Will go wander on over and read your interview and Brian's too.


  16. What a beautiful culture.. but it's easy to feel this way when America sucks the color out of everything

  17. I agree with everything you say about Bonnie; she has gently led me into the highways and byways of blogging , and allowed me space to express myself generously and with great forbearance.

    But what I really want to comment on is your description of 'Tertuliante'. You have almost made me cry. I come from the central European culture of the Kaffeehaus, the late night, music-less bar and the long after dinner conversations and silences. None of these treasures are really available in the UK. The pub is fine, but beery and therefore smelly, the restaurant wants you out for the next sitting and the hotel bar is empty and boring and used mainly by commercial travellers.

    I am not sure that the Kaffeehaus still exists anywhere else but in my memory, but nostalgia is allowed, I hope.

  18. Ah, my dear Lorenzo where do I begin? Your generosity of spirt touches me deeply.

    As a translator you are in the habit of deciphering meaning and shifting it from one form to another. Perhaps it is this skill/talent that has allowed you to decipher intent and yearning from the paltry scratches you read on my blog. It is my job to understand, and I must admit it is rare that I feel so completely understood. Thank you.

    It has been my desire to create a blog that encourages conversations, nourishing exchanges, and constructive criticism. To describe my blog - as a tertulia where one can be assured of 'themed chit-chat among friends' captures my intent to a "T".

    Thank you so much for unraveling complex yearnings, often wretchedly unfulfilled, for the readers of my blog. Of course, I do think you are projecting what you do so beautifully on your blog, onto me, but I will try to accept it with grace as it has been my desire, if not always my outcome.

    There is much for all of us to contemplate in this post of yours. How can we stretch this form of expression (blogging) into something that nourishes, challenges, streches, engages, educates, transforms .... I have had a few ideas in this regard and your post has encouraged me to formulate them even more concretely.

    I think we have discovered a few tertulias across this cyberworld. Thank you so much for articulating this in such a way that we will all be inspired to foster even more tertulia energy in our blogs.

    As always, I leave inspired and energized!

  19. When I started reading this great post, I thought to myself, "Oh, but the blog world has stepped into the spot of the salon." And I'm glad to see you so nicely tied up this concept at the end, Triple L. Yes, we're all members of this wonderful, wacky cyber-tertulia.

  20. me encanta tu blog!!!!
    i long for tertulias!!!!

    i love the old tertulias!!

    yo queria ser traductora, pero i can´t master words!! ugh.

    you do it sooo well!

  21. Lorenzo,

    What you write here about tertulias could make me dust off my basic Spanish and emigrate were it not for the fact that my family would object.

    I see by the comments, I'm not the only one who wishes for such connection. As much as I appreciate blog-conversation, it's still missing something vital. A few typed words here and a few return words from others on my blog are a poor stand in for the crucible of *presence* and the energetic elixir created through conversation. I've known that rarely and that's kind of sad. To be honest, I feel isolated, though as always, writing fills what spaces it can. At least there is the chance to blog, eh?

    I have to say that without the opportunities provided by the internet, I would not have had so many delightful opportunities to engage in educational cross fertilization. I can't even bring myself to inhabit a cafe seat very often - though it's a college town and very common, I still feel the unspoken cultural pressure to get a move on combined with the sense that sitting and writing in a cafe, here, is one facet of image-production ("see, I'm a REAL writer, look at how cool I am").

    I did love teahouse culture, when I was living in China: A small fee, a table under the tiled roof edge for a day, the year's new tea, continuous thermos refills and bowls of nuts and seeds to snack on, and always conversation interspersed with a stroll along the stone-lined paths in the moist, rain-showered hills and by the lakes. Teahouses and tertulias are where philosophies are refined and expression generated.

    I am in no small way envious for a culture that doesn't insist that one ought to "go it alone" and "pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps" and just generally make it difficult to embrace community such as this.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  22. I came to this post the other day and didn't have the time to soak it in as I'd like.

    I think of tertulias, and an ache starts, one that misses the culture of Uruguay so fiercely, where I spent 2 years of my young adult life, a time that forever changed me.

    I second Ruth's comment, as well, you share a joy in the beauty and life around you that is a treasure to witness.

  23. Hi, Lorenzo. Thank you for the introduction to tertulias. They sound like places I would love. I agree with George, though. You have a tertuliante por excelencia right here at The Alchemist's Pillow.

    I just read the interview and love it. The questions and answers are great, and I appreciate that you allowed Bonnie to lift a bit of your veil. The poems are wonderful, and the pictures are a perfect accompaniment to the interview. The first one is especially awesome! I love your sense of humor. Thanks again for another great conversation and much food for thought.


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