:: By Mary Ruth Yoe

:: Photography by Dan Dry

link:  e-mail this to a friend

Features ::

Spanish Steps

In a fast-paced civilization sequence, Chicago undergrads explore Barcelona’s past and present. 

Third-year Neil Lutz arrives at Classics lecturer Lee Behnke’s office hours a few minutes before six o’clock on a Sunday evening. He’s brought along “New Evidence for the Study of the Urbanism of Tarraco,” the article he’s been assigned to present at tomorrow’s session on the Roman army in Spain. He also carries a copy of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. He’s found a passage he wants to share with the other students in Behnke’s course, Iberia: Ancient and Late Antique.

The novel’s narrator, Marco Polo, describes the city of Clarice and the successive cities and imagined pasts that sprang from its ruins: “Only this is known for sure: a given number of objects is shifted within a given space, at times submerged by a quantity of new objects, at times worn out and not replaced; the rule is to shuffle them each time, then try to assemble them.”

“That’s great!” Behnke enthuses as she finishes the section, intrigued by its implicit questions about the nature of the archaeological enterprise. “Now, can we get it photocopied? Is there a place near you?” She and Lutz discuss options for a minute, then get up and walk downstairs to the front desk.

Behnke’s “office” doubles as the breakfast room of her Barcelona hotel; Lutz’s “dorm” is a hotel several blocks away, where he and the 24 other Chicago undergrads enrolled in the Civilization in the Western Mediterranean program live. In the second week of the quarter-long program, neither teacher nor student has discovered Barcelona’s answer to Kinko’s.

Chicago undergraduates who opt to study abroad (some 400 students annually, choosing from 47 quarter- or year-long programs) do so for different reasons. The fact that the Barcelona program, now in its tenth year, satisfies the College’s requirements in civilization studies is a draw for many, especially majors in economics or the sciences. Others cite the chance to work on their Spanish: “I want to be a doctor,” explains fourth-year chemistry major Nicole Sindy, “and I don’t want to have to deal with my patients via translators.”

For some the attraction is more visceral: “I really wanted to come to Spain,” says third-year Inez Jones. A Hyde Parker whose “house is closer to campus than my dorm,” Jones says of life in Barcelona, with its trademark black-and-yellow taxis and omnipresent scooters: “I feel like I’m in a movie.”

Whatever their rationale, sooner or later the students find themselves feeling a bit like a latter-day Marco Polo, or a Roman soldier sent to the wilds of Iberia. They’ve come anticipating the shock of the new, but it keeps popping up in unexpected ways.

Take the language. Barcelona is plainly in Spain, but in everyday conversation many locals speak Catalan, not Castilian Spanish. Their city, after all, is the capital of Catalonia, recognized as a nation within a nation, an Autonomous Community of Spain. Barred during the Franco regime, Catalan, with roots in both Iberian- and Gallo-Romance languages, is now one of Catalonia’s three co-official languages (Castilian and Aranese are the others). Several students prepped by enrolling in basic Catalan at Chicago; all students, from beginners to fluent speakers, take Spanish as part of the Barcelona curriculum, learning Castilian conjugations and cases against a Catalonian backdrop.

Monday’s class is Day 5 for Behnke, the equivalent of fifth week. Two Mondays later, Associate Professor of Romance Languages & Literatures Larry Norman will arrive from the U of C to teach the sequence’s second course, European Civilization II. Antonio Luna-Garcia, a professor of geography at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra—where the Chicago classes are held—leads the third course, Urbanism, Urban Identity, and City History: the Barcelona Case.

With a week’s material to cover in three morning hours (Spanish instruction follows an hour break for lunch), Behnke starts precisely on schedule, as stragglers settle into the tight rows of seats and pull out notebooks and copies of Plutarch.

Before yielding the floor to a trio of student presenters, Behnke sets the contextual stage. “This is the end of the Republic, and all of the wars that are fought in Spain are a reflection of what is going on back in Rome.” She distributes a handout on Roman military garb—“in case you want to dress like Roman soldiers for your trip tomorrow” to Tarragona, aka Roman Tarraco. “Don’t tempt me, Professor Behnke!” fourth-year economics major Justin Birch shoots back.

Emphasizing the practicality of the uniform’s design, Behnke segues to how the Roman general Gaius Marius (the subject of the day’s first student presentation) had each soldier carry three days of rations, thus eliminating what had been a military Achilles’ heel: “All the enemy had to do was to cut off an army from its supply train.” Other Marius innovations also increased the army’s efficiency, making it easier to establish camps—thus helping to spread the empire.

“Now, change yourselves into your friendly ellipsis,” Behnke commands. The undergrads scrape chairs into a shallow semicircle as third-year Alexandra Krysiak writes a list on the chalkboard: Justice. Laws. Glory. Innovation. Treachery. Envy. Merit. Fortune. Morals from literature. Assigned to summarize and lead a discussion of Plutarch’s biography of Marius—a presentation that takes the place of a paper and gets graded as such—Krysiak first hits the highlights of the general’s life (157–86 BC): modest birth, favorable omens, victories in battle, rise to consul, disgrace. “And in the end he dies a very unhappy man.”

It’s time for the rest of the class to weigh in. “What are some of his good qualities?” Krysiak asks. “He was a noble soldier, an excellent military strategist,” answers third-year Emerald Gao, a cinema- and media-studies major. “What’s a good example of his strategy?” Krysiak returns, a probe for specifics that earns a nod from Behnke.

“Do you think Marius’s character changed at all over the course of his life?” asks Krysiak, after other traits, from superstitiousness to sense of justice, have been discussed.

“I started out liking him,” Inez Jones responds, “but the more I read, the less I felt that way.”

“Once he got into power,” Michael Glass, a third-year sociology major, agrees, “it seemed he would do anything to stay in power. I kind of admired him at the beginning but—”

“He’s a pretty one-dimensional man,” offers third-year Greta Honold as the tide of consensus continues to turn against Marius. “He’s a pretty good military man but not a good political leader. The turning point comes when there’s peace, and he no longer knows what to do.”

Before Marius is again consigned to disgrace, Birch suggests that his classmates consider their source: “Plutarch’s utter disdain for this guy gets in the way” of an accurate picture, he argues. Marius “might have had better traits, but you get the feeling Plutarch’s not going to tell us about them.”

Then Krysiak moves from individual to society: “What does this piece reveal to us in general about Rome at the time?”

“I think Plutarch is making a statement that Rome functions really well as a war machine,” says Melissa Thomasma, a fourth-year international-studies major. “But when it comes to peacetime, things start to fall apart.”

The midpoint break arrives, complete with a reading assignment: photocopies of the Italo Calvino selection, secured in the nick of time. Class resumes at 11:30.

“I fell asleep and left my contacts in,” the next presenter, Lizzie Martinez, begins, red-eyed behind her glasses. “It’s sort of fitting.” Her subject, Sertorius, had lost one eye in battle. From 83 BC until his assassination ten years later, he ruled Hispania, and Plutarch’s account of Sertorius’s life moves Rome another step along the line from republic to empire. Like Krysiak, Martinez is charged with helping her classmates construct a historical figure from the material Plutarch has shaped. In a sense, it’s archaeology, imagining or reimagining the past from its extant pieces.

Then comes Neil Lutz’s assigned text. “New Evidence for the Study of the Urbanism of Tarraco” charts the archaeological evidence of the Iberian settlement’s metamorphosis from republican town to provincial capital. With chalkboard diagrams, Lutz recaps the trajectory. But he’s most interested in Tarraco’s status as an ancient town coexisting with a contemporary city, a status that echoes Calvino’s city of Clarice and its subsequent reincarnations. “What did you think of the reading?” he asks.

English major Stefan Kamph goes first. By noting the citizens’ vain efforts to reconstruct an unknown city from its shards, he says, “Calvino is dwelling on the falsehood that is inherent in any kind of preservation.”

On Friday afternoon the class had toured the Museu d’Historia, which contains layers of objects from the Roman period through modern times. “It’s kind of strange,” says Martinez, “to think that something that was originally useful and pragmatic—something I wouldn’t think twice about, like this chair—is put into a museum.” And yet, as anthropology major Annie Dean points out, “You get to see what the people of Barcelona thought was important to preserve and why.”

“How deep do we dig?” Lutz asks, a question that quickly becomes, How should we deal with what we uncover?

“Calvino definitely brings out the idea of recycling,” Thomasma says. “You don’t have to preserve something by cordoning it off and saying, Don’t touch it.”

“The building we’re in right now,” offers anthropology major Katie Bockes, is a perfect example “of taking something and reusing it, while making a political statement.” The high-ceilinged room, with its brick-and-stone exterior wall, is carved from a military barracks, one of two built in 1888 to quarter troops from Madrid. After 100 years the barracks were abandoned. Some wanted the buildings demolished; instead they house part of Pompeu Fabra, a fledgling public university named for a Catalan grammarian exiled by Franco’s government.

The next day in Tarragona, where a walk among the Roman ruins is also a walk past butcher shops and jewelry stores, a tour guide leads the class up a flight of terraced steps along the Roman wall, one step per century of city history: in the first century AD, buildings for government; in the second century, the seaside amphitheater; in the third century, the first Christians. The guide keeps climbing until the eighth century, when the Moors invaded Spain: “For four centuries nothing.”

It’s an omission Behnke notes for future class discussion: What gets kept, what gets thrown away, what prompts a rediscovery? Exploring such questions, she believes, is “as important as having the answer.”