Interview with Paul Read, the Gazpachomonk. #WABAS12

Paul Read - writer, broadcaster and Tai Chi master.

Paul Read – writer, broadcaster and Tai Chi master.

As a blogger and tweeter, I follow and read many other expats here in Spain. One who has intrigued me for some time is the Gazpachomonk. Apart from the obvious appeal of the name, I was delighted on meeting Paul at the recent WABAS weekend in Malaga recently to find that he is different from other expats – he has fresh and fascinating views on living here in Spain, coloured by his experience of Tai Chi, his love of history, and his wonderfully dry humour. I enjoyed Paul’s book, Inside the Tortilla: A Journey In Search of Authenticity, and am avidly watching his series of videos on Spain in the WABAS12 series (12 bloggers-on-Spain each posting a video every day for 12 consecutive days), so I decided to ask him some probing questions about authenticity, gastronomy, and eyewear.

Why are you called the Gazpachomonk?

In a parallel universe I am known as the “teapotmonk” (where I write about Eastern philosophy, teach Tai Chi and spout Taoist nonsense). When I moved to Spain, I wanted to keep something of this identity, but as I was now working in an Iberian context, I exchanged the tea for gazpacho. Critics argue that I still spout the same nonsense, it just has more of a garlic flavour these days.

How long have you lived here in Spain?

In 1994 I spent a year in Seville as part of a degree course I was taking. I returned to Spain in 1996 with my partner, Cherry, and we have been living here since then.

the town of Loja,in Granada province, which Paul brings to life in his book Inside the Tortilla.

The town of Loja,in Granada province, which Paul brings to life in his book Inside the Tortilla.

A previous chapter in Paul's life: working in markets on the Costa Tropical.

A previous chapter in Paul’s life: working in markets on the Costa Tropical.

Where have you lived, and which place(s) have you liked most, and why?

Ohhh, big question. The year in Seville was exciting and it still remains one of my favourite cities in the world. In 1996 we moved to Tarragona, but just for four months. Loved the place and the people, but couldn’t get work, so shifted to Madrid. However, found that too hectic, noisy, expensive and it reminded us too much of London. So we moved to Toledo – atmospheric and medieval and a really convenient place to buy a suit of armour and marzipan. However, it wasn’t too long before we realised it wasn’t so good for getting a pint of milk or a loaf of bread.

After two years without bread and many adventures later, we fled to Castille and Leon. But it was too quiet and too cold, so we headed south and in 1998 found ourselves in the coastal resort of Almuñecar in Granada. We stayed there working the markets for seven years until we couldn’t stand the ebb and flow of so many people – it was a bit like living in a big bus station, just more watery, and so we fled the coast and found ourselves here in Loja, where we’ve been since 2006.

What still frustrates you most about living in Spain?

When I hear people complain about either Spanish bureaucracy, corruption or oily tapas, I tend to want to poke them in the kidneys – not because of what they are saying, but because I find such posturing ultimately disempowering.

If frustrating things happen – and obviously they do to everyone – I’m convinced it’s as much to do with ourselves as our chosen country. Clashes of culture, language, social differences will inevitably lead to misunderstandings. How we respond is the only tool we have – and it comes down to this: how do we wish to play out our life here? Is it going to be an obstacle forever, or will it be a challenge?

What do you think of the expat scene?

Let’s be honest, we are all expats, and we all operate in some circle or another. Some do so on the coast, others in the campo or inland. Some are bound together by their inability to speak or contextualise the affairs of the country, others by their – often misguided – belief that they can actually do so.

Yet we all need to touch base now and then with our past, with people who share our history, our cultural or social reference points, wherever we find ourselves. In a way, I can understand the expat communities of the coastal strip who honestly make no claim about learning the language or integrating into another lifestyle. I may not be in agreement with their aims, but I respect their honesty. On the other hand, a lot of other expats – particularly those who boast of their ability to conjugate an irregular verb or publicly rejoice in shunning the rest of the foreigners in town – are simply hypocritical. It’s pure class politics raising its ugly head once more.

Paul's book covers many aspects of life in Spain, from flamenco to

Paul’s book covers many aspects of life in Spain, from siestas to Semana Santa.

Which Spanish dish do you make best? (apart from gazpacho!)

“Sopa de ajo” is my winter favourite right now. Whatever is in season is the base of all my favourite recipes – and of course that changes with the time of year – Ive a section on my website with all my best recipes – if you want to check that out.

Where did you get idea for your series of #WABAS12 videos?

I’d been doing podcasts for the last couple of years and had based them on the concept of trying to understand the foolishness of our present lifestyle choices by looking for explanations in the past. History is not about answering the questions of when or where, but rather why and how? These questions bring history alive, particularly when you can relate universal themes to somewhere as specific as the town you live in. So when the WABAS12 project was born, I decided to try and apply these ideas to the medium of video, and try my best to portray one small town in the most universal of ways. I wanted to show that you don’t need to be living in a major city to see the history of the world in front of your eyes.

Why do you always wear shades in your videos?

There are two possible answers:

1) Robin, Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man – they all hide behind something when publicly fighting injustice, right? Well the Gazpachomonk wears shades.

2) “Uveitis Anterior” is an eye condition that dilates the pupils of the sufferer and makes sunlight almost unbearable.

Why don’t you mention your partner in your book, Inside the Tortilla?

It’s true that my partner, Cherry, was by my side during many of the episodes in the book, and her presence is there if you look for it. But I chose not to include her directly because the emphasis of the book is themes and not characters – hence we never get to know a lot about the narrator, and the Hound has no name. Even the identity of the town is never mentioned, other than by its fictional name of “La Llave.” In this way I hoped the book would not fall into the pit of two bumbling expats “Year in Andalusia, Driving over Figs” home-improvement yarn so prevalent since the last wave of North European immigrants discovered blogging.

Do you have any future book or video ideas/plans? You mention a sequel at the end of Inside the Tortilla: The Labyrinth Years.

The Labyrinth book was co-written by Cherry and I during our Toledo years and sits as an unfinished manuscript at home. Whilst we ponder over its future I’m working on a new book for 2014 called Voices, in which a series of historical characters describe what keeps them sane in an insane world: themes of love, passion, migration, gazpacho, corruption, churros. Meanwhile, I’m still working on my Tai Chi series of books with the teapotmonk – and a selection of videos and podcasts that accompany them (http://teapotmonk.com/).

How and where do you find authenticity?

Authenticity is an endangered species these days. Like people, towns have their authentic voices – at times loud and clear, other times silenced in the rush to embrace the latest expression of modernity ( eco-tourism and Facebook pages come to mind). My search for authenticity arose because I felt myself drowning in this sea of nonsense.

When any place or person engages in the exploitation of people or the land, and tags it as something new and trendy, they suppress its unique voice, its character, and we all lose out. I hope the greed we have seen exposed politically these last few years encourages us to look once more at the uniqueness of where we live and who we are, and not to fall back on the old cycle of unfettered growth in a world with finite means. Have I personally found it? Let’s just say it’s an ongoing project.

What advice would you offer for those thinking of moving to Spain?

If I had to give two piece of advice I’d say…

1. I know this is difficult, but try not to move to Spain without renting for a full year first. Yes, it means paying out cash, but it will give you so many advantages over buying. You can move around and check out the area, the town, the people, the dialect, the weather, the noise, the heat, the health services, the working possibilities etc without committing yourself to a huge investment that would be difficult to change later on.

2. Language – forget the imperfect subjunctive, just get familiar with the basics and let your new world teach you the rest. This of course means that if your new world is composed of satellite TV, internet news and watching rugby in the local Sports Bar, then you may have to make a bit more effort. Think of language as a useful app on your smart phone. It’s a tool that’ll help to contextualise this strange new world, explain it to you and help you explain yourself to others. Moving to Spain without the language is, as I’m often prone to say, akin to taking up golf and then pulling your arms of their sockets just before your first round.

You can find out more about Paul’s Spain-related books, ebooks, podcasts and videos at his website, Speaking of Spain: Resources on Living, Working and Sweating in Spain. (Paul has a great line in subtitles, as you can see.)
Watch his WABAS12 videos on his YouTube channel.
Other links: Paul’s books and his blog about Tai Chi.

10 things I’ve learned I can’t live without

A few weeks ago, I reached an important milestone – both in my life, and in my time lived in Spain: it’s 10 years since I arrived here in Seville. Back in September 2003 I came to this beautiful city – via London and Quito, Ecuador – with no expectations, no idea of what I’d find (I’d never been here before), and a few names as contacts.

A decade later, I have a small, tumbledown house (literally), two dogs and a semi-wild cat, two children and a husband, lots more English-language novels, thousands of leaflets, guidebooks and novels about various aspects of Andalucian and Spain, from the Civil War to flamenco, as well as a decent collection of children’s DVDs. And one of the contacts is still a good friend, and unofficial godmother to my son.

Having read Josh’s reliably excellent post on five things not to forget when moving to Spain (clue: it’s about food, and nursery food at that), it occurred to me that since I’ve been here 10 years, my anniversary would be a great excuse hook for a post on things I’ve learned that I can’t live without. Practical posts aren’t my forte, but this might be of some use or interest to a new, or potential, expat.

So here goes (artwork: Copyright Lola and Zac Flores Watson):

no1

1) Revo internet radio
If I want to dance, I find some pop tunes on Radio 2; hear the news, Radio 4; remember why I left London, Radio London; listen to some quirky tracks, Radio 6 Music. I go off into my own little world when I’m in the kitchen with my radio on. Some British expats refuse to listen to British radio or watch British TV. Balderdash and poppycock. (Confession: I do listen to RAI in the car.)

no2

2) Satellite dish
I rarely watch TV, except for the news – once the kids are finally in bed, I’m either working on the computer, eating, or asleep. We don’t even have one at the moment as our sitting room is a building site. But when we do, the reason I value it so highly is CBeebies. Have you seen Spanish children’s TV? Think, the most moronic, sexist, casual-violence American animated nonsense you can imagine, and that’s it. Brain-rot. At least Ballamory has sound ideas on racial harmony. And its theme tune is far less irritating than Sponge Bob Squarepants, FFS.

no3

3) Girls’ nights out
My best girlfriends are all English. What a cliche, I hear you say. But that cultural familiarity, the unspoken bonds, the mutual understanding of being married to a Spaniard (four of my closest mum mates are) and all the communication challenges that implies. All we need is a bottle of wine (or three) and you can leave us there till the wee hours.

no4

4) The Week
My wonderful, though sadly aging, Dad gets me a subscription every year to this weekly news mag, which distills the most interesting and important stories from British and foreign media into 60-odd pages – perfect loo or bath reading material. And it gets passed on to one of those mentioned in 3).

no5

5) Nice soap
The Spanish don’t seem to do nice soap, unless it’s made of honey and glycerin with oatmeal flakes suspended inside and costs 4 euros. Buy a four-pack of normal scented stuff from any English supermarket and you’ll be fragrant for months.

no6

6) Facebook, especially groups
I don’t understand anyone who doesn’t use Facebook. How else would I know when anyone’s birthday is? Or what their children look like now? Or what embarrassing thing happened to them at work last week? Or which Youtube video’s gone viral? I work at home, so there’s no water-cooler moment, no chat while the kettle boils (do they even have kettles in Spanish offices?) It’s like a mouthy coffee break, getting squiffy cocktail hour, and catch-up chat on the phone, all rolled into one. And the groups are indescribably useful and supportive. I’ve made fantastic contacts, found work, and received (and, I hope, given too) useful advice via Facebook groups.

no7

7) Extra reserves of patience and tolerance
The I-don’t-understand-you grimace, the “you don’t need that form”, “you only need one copy”, “you don’t need the original”. Ignore, push, insist, ask again, request clarification (you did need the form, four copies, and the original). If in doubt, start again from the beginning. Be firm and try to stay calm. Spanish administration is hell, but at least make sure that the bolshy jobsworth funcionario (civil servant) who’s trying to deny you that essential document – because she wants to go and have her coffee break – does her job properly. (Although in my case, I don’t think they get off scot-free either – I need everything explaining at least four times, which must have its less endearing qualities.) And if they’re being really obtuse, officious or offensive, just picture them in their underwear.

no8

8) Chutney
Cebolla caramelizada doesn’t quite cut it. In fact, Spanish jams in general are sub-standard. English fruit and vegetable chutneys, however, especially spicy ones, have this strange power of making an ordinary cheese sandwich into a thing of wonder.

no9

9) Regular trips back to the motherland
We go about twice a year – I need to be among people who speak my language, literally, and may not be as warm or friendly as the Spanish, but who won’t frown at me when I mumble because I’m too knackered to en-un-ci-ate clear-ly. Where supermarket shelves overflow with a heavenly array of cakes, biscuits and naughty puds, and crisps and chutneys (see 8) come in 359 flavours. Where friends who’ve known me for years can tell me what I need to be told. And where I, and especially my children, can spend precious time with aforementioned aging parents.

no10

10) My family
Well, obviously. I’m hardly going to dump them by the roadside and go gallivanting off to the Algarve for a week on my own, now, am I? (Well, actually, there was talk of a girls’ weekend away – see 3) The biggest change for me since arriving in Seville, apart from giving up smoking, designer clothes and poncy cocktail bars, has been having my children. They’re half-Spanish, or half-Andalucian as their Dad would say, bilingual, and comfortable in both cultures, thanks to 2 and 9; and 1 helps too. My husband, for his part, keeps our shoddily-built bungalow standing, tending to plumbing, electrical, structural and countless other problems, and is a bear-ish sort of bloke who is useful around the house and garden (great veg patch) – just as well, since he doesn’t have a job. Anyway, they’re the bees’ knees and I love them to bits. I managed without them for three days recently, on a very nice trip in Andalucia, but that was quite long enough, thank you. I can’t go without hugs for more than three days. Ni pensar.

What can’t you live without?

 

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Our Jubilee in (occasionally) sunny Suffolk

I might as well admit it now: I come from a family of staunch, conservative monarchists – ex-armed forces, Conservative Thatcherites. While I – and my brother – reject most of their political beliefs (which inspires some good, heated debates round the dinner table), one aspect of their Britishness has stuck with me: royalty-watching.

I can put this down to early immersion: my late aunt worked for the Queen, and used to take me and my brother as children to “Buck House” for the big occasions, while our parents either watched with the crowds or stayed at home. We would hang out in my aunt’s office and then go upstairs to watch the state carriages arriving in the palace’s inner courtyard from the balcony. There are plenty of family anecdotes from those visits, including Prince Andrew bumping into my brother as he ran along the corridor.

The Silver Jubilee in 1977 was one such occasion, so I find it hard not to think about these extraordinary experiences when British royal events approach. My children are thoroughly immersed in Andalucian culture, so I decided to balance out their cultural self-identity with a dose of Englishness. And what could be more English than a bunting-draped, cake-festooned, flag-waving Jubilee village party?

My brother lives in a little village in Suffolk, which joins with the next-door hamlet for such occasions. He helped organise this party – he also raised funds to build their excellent playground (can you tell I’m quite proud?). It was one of thousands held across Britain to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee – 60 years as the British sovereign. That’s a long time for anyone to be in the same job, even if you do live in a palace and have lots of servants.

The proceedings started off with the arrival of “The Queen” and “Prince Philip” in a coach and horses. Her Majesty (take note, BBC presenters) inspected the bicycles and then made her way to the field – with its bunting-ed tents, trestle tables heaving with red, white and blue-decorated cakes, hog roast, and drinks tent with beer barrels and Pimm’s – to make her speech, which was hilarious, in her inimitable accent.

Everyone had brought along a salad, and I’ve eaten far worse at restaurants. After a delicious lunch (my carnivorous son loved his hog bap), we troughed out on cakes, tarts and other sweet delights. The paper tablecloth was even printed with a red and white crown motif, a home-made potato print. These Suffolk people do things in style.

The next excitements were the best-dressed wheelbarrows and silly hats. Big Ben won, from an impressive field, and the pompoms were pipped at the post by a corgi.

Then we had the tug(s) of war – men’s and ladies’ – between the two villages.

My son is heaving-ho in the stripey Tshirt, just behind his uncle (in red).

Lastly, after the various five-a-side games (my brother was goalie in the adults’), was the sing-song.

The weather was typically schizophrenic – sun out: jumper off; sun out for more than five minutes: outer T-shirt off; sun in: jumper and other layers back on again; rain: coat on, brolly up, etc.

That night we went to see a firework display on the Deben river, followed by the lighting one of 4,000-odd beacons around the UK.

The following day, we went to the street party in my parents’ village, but all felt a little partied-out so we just made a brief visit, plus the weather wasn’t great. Here are few pictures from it.

We all had a wonderful time – especially my children playing with their cousins, whom they don’t see that often, at the Jubilee jamboree. They understood that the parties were in honour of the Queen, which was all you can expect at their age. I threw myself into watching all the celebrations on TV, and via Twitter comments – the regatta on Sunday (though I fell asleep – blame the BBC’s rubbish coverage, of which Fearne Cotton was the nadir) and the concert, of which hula-hooping Grace Jones and Robbie “Let Me Entertain You” Williams were the highlights.

Prince Charles came off extremely well from the proceedings – his personal memories accompanying the Queen’s home videos shown on the BBC, of him and his sister rolling down a grassy bank at Balmoral; his speech to his Mama after the concert; and his surprise visit with the Duchess of Cornwall to a street party in London. My view, anyway, has changed; he seemed to be relaxed, enjoying himself and at ease among all those showbiz legends (Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Elton John). Maybe he is no longer as stuffy and spiky as he’s always been portrayed, or perhaps he’s just mellowed with age. A more human prince.

 

How was your Jubilee, if you celebrated it, whether in the UK or elsewhere? Did you eat too much cake as well? Is there such a thing as too much cake?

Expo 92, 20 years on

Curro was the mascot for Seville's Expo 92.

Today is the 20th anniversary of the opening day of the Exposicion Universal 1992.

I wasn’t here for this momentous six-month event in Sevilla, a global cultural fiesta which welcomed representations from 111 countries, but I sure as hell wish I had been. Many of these nations built pabellones (pavilions) in Isla Cartuja, the site where the Expo was held, to show a microcosm of their culture and architecture, including the UK, the US and Japan. Each autonomous community of Spain also had its own pavilion.

This video (I’d start watching at 0:24) will give you an idea of the scale of Expo 92. The exhibition opened its doors to the public on 20 April 1992, closing on 12 October, Dia de Colon (Columbus Day).

The total number of visits to the Expo 92 was a staggering 42 million (41,814571 to be precise). Many Sevillanos met and married foreigners who had come to work at the Expo, returning to their native countries with them, and many extranjeros ended up staying here for good, including friends of mine.

Seville's ticket to the big time.

You can’t overstate the importance of the Expo in Seville’s development, economic and social. Before 1992, Seville was a charming, old-fashioned city in backwards Andalucia. It took four hours to drive 95km to the beach, ten to travel the 500km to Madrid by car, along single-carriageway roads. In social terms, to quote one veteran English resident, “Seville was still in the 1960s, as far as rights and respect for women and foreigners went.”

Thanks to the exhibition, the city’s infrastructure, and that of the entire region, was dragged into the late 20th century, with motorways, a new airport, new bus and train stations, and a high-speed rail service (the AVE) halving the journey time to Madrid. Six new bridges were built crossing the Guadalquivir. The attention of the world was focused on Seville, and the minds of its residents were opened up by the cultural mix that the Expo brought.

Two of the new bridges built for the Expo, linking the site on Isla Cartuja with the rest of the city. Taken from the Pabellon de Navegacion's tower.

During the Expo itself, my husband always tells me (he worked on the construction of the Canadian, French and Thai pabellones, and in restaurants during the event itself), the atmosphere was amazing – a mix of nationalities never before seen in Seville. He had hordes of people camping in the garden of his house (where we live now), with all-night parties which used to piss the neighbours off no end. He says it was like being at university again.

The Pabellon de Navegacion, an integral part of the Expo 92, which reopened earlier this year.

So what’s left of Expo these days? The Pabellon de Navegacion on the river
was an important part of the Expo, celebrating Seville’s part in the Discovery of America – the year of the Expo was no accident. It was 500 years after Columbus found America, and the theme of the exhibition was “The Age of Discovery”. This pavilion was a nautical-themed building, with replicas of the three ships of Colon, now resident in a dock near Huelva city. A tower next to the pabellon provided panoramic views of the Expo site, and the city. Both have been refurbished, and were re-inaugurated in January 2012.

La Cartuja, the Carthusian monastery and latterly ceramics factory (founded by an Englishman), which was the Expo's HQ.

And the 15th-century monastery Santa Maria de las Cuevas, on Isla Cartuja, as the headquarters of the Expo, was where Columbus stayed – it all ties in very neatly. La Cartuja, as the monastery is known, now houses an art centre, the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo.

The NO8DO sculpture from the Jardines de Guadalquivir - the symbol of Seville city.

Two sites which have been restored are adjoining riverside gardens, the Jardines del Guadalquivir and the Jardin Americano. They reopened two years ago, but are not very much visited and thus provide a haven of tranquility close the city centre. Although they’re not as well maintained as they could be.

Jardin Americano, which had plants from many Latin American countries, including rare palms. The roof has various trees poking up through it.

An abandoned sculpture in the Jardines del Guadalquivir

Tomorrow there are guided tours of the remaining pavilions from the Expo. They leave every half hour from 10am-12.30 and 4-4.30pm, from the Pabellon de Europa. I’m familiar with some of them, but am hoping to go on the tour to get the full picture.

Useful links:

Guided tours of Expo 92 Pavilions
List of Expo 92 Pavilions
Jardin Americano
Monasterio La Cartuja
Pabellon de Navegacion

29M in Sevilla

Today there was a general strike here in Spain, called by the two main trade unions, the CCOO and CGT, to protest against the new PP government’s labour reforms.

I wanted to go on the march here in Seville, which was leaving from various points in the centre and converging on Parque Maria Luisa, but my son was sick so he stayed home from school (they had a minimal staff working).

However I did manage to slip away for a few hours in the afternoon (thanks, suegra) to see the last part of the day’s events. I didn’t take my camera, to be more discreet, as some people can be self-conscious when they see a lens. The iPhone did the job fine.

As usual, the press quoted widely varying estimates of turnout in Seville, ranging from 10,000 (according to the police) to 100,000 (say the unions). In terms of participation, the national average was 77%, with administration 57% and construction and industry 97%. For full details from the two main unions, see here.

When I arrived (by metro, uncrowded) lots of people were walking up Calle San Fernando from the park, so I thought I’d missed the whole thing. They were still carrying their flags, and I could see more in the distance, so I walked against the flow of people towards the Prado.

There were still many sitting and standing around in Plaza San Juan de Austria (next to the Jardines de Murillo), with plenty of wacky backy smells in the air. As usual, there were all ages, from tiny babies to the elderly, with plenty of beards and bikes…

and some great slogans…

"No to reforms, yes to the (right) way (of doing things)," or something like that.

and some great slogans on bikes.

"So many people without homes, so many homes without people."

All colours of flags, too – as well as the red of the trade unions, the Republican and the Andalucian. The man’s tabard says “Quieren acabar con todo”, a snappier version of the strike’s slogan – “Quieren acabar con los derechos sociales y laborales” – “They want to destroy our social and labour rights”.

I could hear some noise coming from the Prado, a park with iron railings around it, so I went to investigate. Speakers on a platform covered with trade union flags were blaring out music, and a huge bar had been set up, serving drinks and paella to protestors.

The atmosphere was very cordial – friends chatting in groups, a few discussions with raised voices, but mostly in excitement rather than anger. (I know not to worry about people shouting at each other in Spain any more – it doesn’t mean they’re about to hit each other, it just means they’re having animated discussion.)

Then a heavy rock band started up, singing about the pigs (police, not jamon), death and destruction. They told the audience this was the first time they’d played to so many people, and it was pretty obvious why. They were shit.

This friendly atmosphere – there was a children’s playground right next to the bar, and flag-waving mixed happily with swings and slides – was a welcome contrast to what my husband had told me when I was heading to the metro station to come into town. Someone had thrown a stone through the window of a restaurant in the city centre, narrowly missing him and others.

The man had then run off towards Avenida de la Constitution, hotly pursued by a group including said husband. This was where the marchers were, so the vandal ran straight into the hands of the police, who were present in numbers to keep watch over the protestors. He was one of the five arrested in Seville today.

It remains to be seen whether President Rajoy will change his plans – his austerity budget, with 30-40bn euros of cuts, will be announced tomorrow – because of today’s marches attended by nearly a million people in 111 towns all over Spain. Half a million people were said to have packed into Puerta del Sol in Madrid.

What did seem clear from what I saw and heard, is that for most people the strike wasn’t a one-off. It was just the beginning of popular protest against widely unpopular reforms.