Tom Källene hails from a small herring-fishing island off the west coast of Sweden and came to live in Spain in 1992. Since childhood he had lived outside of his native country, mainly in England and Norway, but also with long stays in the U.S. and travels to various countries, due to a restless nature and wanderlust. He worked at a number of jobs, from crewing on fishing boats to working as a ranch hand, in saw and logging mills, to international director of sales, and TV and film production. In Spain, he is best known (amongst many other things) for being part of the commentary team covering the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona for RTVE Spanish National Television and for co-hosting, for the past ten years, several popular radio shows with his good friend Toni Garrido, first at Cadena Ser and later on Radio Nacional. He is the author of two books. “Sueco se escribe con Ñ” is part biography, part lighthearted take on the cultural differences between Spain and Sweden. In addition, he co-authored a Spanish “road book” with Garrido, “Onderou”. He is currently working on a noir novel set in Madrid.
Tom, thank you very much for taking time out for this interview.
Not a problem, always my pleasure…
OK, let’s get started… Tom, how did your love affair with Spain begin?
I can still remember that first kiss… (laughs).Well, I first came to Spain as a child with my folks, a very common thing, being Swedish, a holiday on Costa del Sol. And I remember liking it. But it was much later in life, living in England, that I developed an interest in all things Spanish, through reading. I decided to visit Madrid and went there in May during the traditional Fiestas of San Isidro… Went to many Bullfights and plenty of Flamenco bars… it left a marked impression and I started going back whenever I could get away.
So, love at first sight?
Very much so. But what really hooked me was the first time I went to San Fermin in Pamplona. I drove up from Madrid, passing through those wonderful landscapes and small villages. In one, they were celebrating their local Fiestas and I was struck by how friendly and inclusive the people were, the colors, sounds, food, how the whole village was involved, young and old, ancient traditions passed down, generation to generation…But not through telling or teaching but living those traditions, in the street. The amazing thing is that although more than two and a half decades has passed since then, it is really quite easy to still find those little village Fiestas now, almost unspoiled.
Well, in a way, that was that first kiss I told you about (laughs). It blew me away, as they say and I decided to come back every year to San Fermin from then on, which I did for a long time. I even insisted on having a “San Fermin” clause in any work contract I signed, guaranteeing me two weeks off in July, during the Fiestas.
I´ve been asked that many times and I still can´t come up with a good answer. To say that it´s a big party, which of course it is, falls short of the mark, it´s much more than that. Spain has many popular Fiestas, all great in their own way, but the essence of “Fiesta” is what happens in Pamplona for seven crazy days every year. “Fiesta” is unique to Spain, it doesn´t happen anywhere else, it really is a great contribution to world culture. And it´s not a museum or monument, it´s a lived and shared experience.
You used to run with the Bulls, did you not, something very central to the festivities?
Although not obligatory… (laughs).You can go there and just have a good time but, yes, I got into Bull running and ran for several years ,in Pamplona and in many other places ,several towns and villages around Spain have them as part of their local celebration. What´s so charming about these celebrations is how open and accessible it all is, it´s very democratic, with the right attitude, you´re in. What made Bull running important for me was being part of a tradition and being close to those magnificent animals. It´s not a competition, it´s living something special , something much bigger than you.
You no longer run. Why?
After some smaller scrapes, I got hit hard in Pamplona in 94, broke my femur, something that put a stop to it. In any case, I was ready to stop, had lost some interest. But since then, I go less to San Fermin. There are so many things to do in Spain…I have been back as a part of the commentary team for Spanish Television, the Bull-running is televised live every morning. I enjoyed that, it´s always fun to share the enthusiasm. And of course I went back two years ago Nigel with your clients… that was another memorable trip!
“What really hooked (about Spain)me was the first time I went to San Fermin in Pamplona. I drove up from Madrid, passing through those wonderful landscapes and small villages. In one, they were celebrating their local Fiestas and I was struck by how friendly and inclusive the people were, the colors, sounds, food, how the whole village was involved, young and old, ancient traditions passed down, generation to generation…But not through telling or teaching but living those traditions, in the street.”
Even though you have traveled widely, and have now lived many years in Spain… your enthusiasm for this country has not waned… what feeds this passion?
I was once involved in filming a documentary about Orson Welles, the American film-maker, and his years living here. Researching the movie, I came across a quote from him. I can´t remember it word perfect now but it was something like “In Spain, there is always an adventure waiting for you around each corner”. I´m sure it was, back in the fifties, when he was here but it´s STILL pretty much true. But I will stop quoting great men and just quote myself, since that´s easier (laughs)…Are you ready? “Spain is the last truly interesting country in Europe”.
Hang on a second there…
Yeah, I know, what about all those other countries, right? (laughs). Look, I´m VERY much a European and a lover of European culture, and I find most places interesting. I lived many years in England and love the British Isles, French and German culture, Italian Opera, Belgian Beer, Dutch…well, you know, whatever it is that the Dutch do…(pause)(laughs) and of course my own Scandinavian roots. I´m also very fond of Asia and most years I try to get to the US. I´ve spent a lot of time there, mainly down South and out West, and I love it. I could shed an emotional tear right here and now for the Southern Breakfast Buffet at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis or standing, at dawn, at Monument Valley… Anyway, where was I?(laughs)…For me the hardest thing to forgive in a person is a lack of enthusiasm ,whatever you love, love it a lot.
Coming to Spain changed my life, apart from it´s amazing culture, high and low, there is an easy going charm to life in this country. There is also a mystery to Spain that makes it so interesting. As someone said, where there is mystery there is life and life is more full and intense here than in those other countries, in my opinion. The whole undercurrent is vitality, to think and be logical is all very good but the most rewarding is to live, fully and well.
So you have pretty varied tastes…
Sure and that´s another reason why this country is so close to my heart, that it´s so varied, made up of so many parts, some of them contradictory, in a very Spanish way…
“As you know, the greatest compliment you can hear in Andalucia is “Qué Arte! Because “Arte”-art is not something you look at in a museum for someone in Seville or Cadiz, it´s a witty phrase or wordplay, a great pass by the bullfighter, a special moment in Flamenco ,or an everyday situation handled with dignity or sense of humor, again, a kind of “beauty in life”, if you like.”
(Tom interrupts )Absolutely! (laughs)… Go on ,ask me about Seville…
Absolutely love Seville!! (laughs)
First of all, how it makes you feel, as soon as you get off the Ave speed train and hit the streets. It never fails to me make feel absurdly good, it puts a silly grin on my face and life has, in an instant, improved a 100%.It must be because of its beauty, Sevilla is stunning, and beauty make everybody happy, I guess. Also, life in Andalucia in general is very different from the rest of Spain, life in the streets, in the bars, at work or at play, is elevated into an art form. As you know, the greatest compliment you can hear in Andalucia is “Qué Arte! Because “Arte”-art is not something you look at in a museum for someone in Seville or Cadiz, it´s a witty phrase or wordplay, a great pass by the bullfighter, a special moment in Flamenco ,or an everyday situation handled with dignity or sense of humor, again, a kind of “beauty in life”, if you like.
Among the various things that you do, you also work for us here at Madrid and Beyond. Why?
I can fit it in with other things I do and because I honestly get a kick out of making people like Spain. Spain has been very good to me and I want it to be good to visitors who have a genuine interest in getting to know the REAL Spain, the experience of Spain and not just a typical summer trip. Also, people have been very good to me on my travels, some stranger in the Japanese countryside who guided me to some out of the way Shinto Shrine or some good ole boy in Alabama, who insisted that I should come and eat his wife’s home-made Grits. And they were very tasty…so it´s perhaps not a karma thing (laughs) but something pretty close to it.
Also because you always pay on time at Madrid & Beyond (laughter)… and because you said that if I do this interview, you would buy me lunch at “Salvador”… Should we have quick “Fino” first in the Andaluz bar or a beer at “Viña P”? Interviews always make me so thirsty….
OK, I got the hint… so, let’s go! Again, thank you very much for your time and for giving us such an interesting point of view on Spain
You’re welcome… and thank you for having me here.