Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Top Ten

It's been a long time since I last wrote; I've been busy but want to get back to the blogging. So here's goes.

One of the first things an expat does (in modern times) is to search for expat websites and forums. Before I moved to Madrid I found such a site in NotesFromSpain.com. Run by an Englishman and his madrileña wife, the page offers everything from advice on moving and restaurant reviews to Spanish lessons and podcasts. Recently they've posted some Top 10 lists. The first was the Top 10 Rants about Spain; to be fair they followed with the same list about England. And they've wrapped it up with the Top 10 Best things about Spain. All of this got me to thinking. What would be my list of the Top 10 Best things about the States? I've put this list together in just a few hours, but what comes to mind first is probably an accurate representation of my feelings. I'm going to work on a similar list for Spain. In the meantime, let me know if you agree about the States...
  1. Massive, well-stocked supermarkets. There isn't a single store in Spain that can hold a candle to a top-notch American grocery store in terms of variety, quality, and service.
  2. The customer is always right. Well, almost always, but even that is a major bonus.
  3. Great Smokey Mountains National Park
  4. Well-funded suburban high schools. Gorgeous, university-like campuses, swimming pools, tennis courts, running trails. You get the picture.
  5. ESPN
  6. Entire neighborhoods filled with holiday light displays worthy of the cover of Good Housekeeping.
  7. The loss-of-innocence, freedom-finding, move-away-from-home college experience. (And I'll throw live college sports in there for good measure.)
  8. Happy Hour
  9. The efficient, inexpensive, and friendly postal service.
  10. People who wear the American flag. When you're there it screams tackiness but once you've lived abroad you realize that such a display of patriotism isn't to be found everywhere.

What do you think?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Anyone who’s spent much time in Madrid knows that the Spanish have made the public protest into an art form. There is typically at least one demonstration a week and it isn’t uncommon to find road detours as you approach the center of town. Today on my walk back from French class I came upon a protest of the largest trade union in Spain. The CCOO is a conglomeration of several other unions and represents, among others, teachers, miners, pensioners, and health workers. So perhaps it’s normal that they have a lot to protest about. I say that because I have seen three of their demonstrations in the past month - two on Gran Via (the sight of todays) and one in Sol. The disruptive-ness of the manifestation depends on the government’s involvement. There are two kinds of protests in Spain – government-sanctioned ones and not. All three of the CCOO protests I’ve seen were of the former kind. You’d think that would have made them less intrusive, less problematic. Not true.

Perhaps erring on the side of caution, today’s protest was a clear example of them exaggerating the hazard. The police – both local and national – closed two of the largest, most-trafficked roads, Gran Via and Alcala, for about one mile from Plaza de Espana to Puerta de Alcala. As I climbed Gran Via I wondered what was going on. There were ambulances at the ready and dozens of police officers on the streets. It even crossed my mind that there had been some kind of car bomb or real security threat. Not so. It was merely a protest. When I finally reached the scene of the “action” I was surprised to find a mere 100 or so people with banners and whistles. They were surrounded on all sides by national police officers but no one, not the “protestors” nor the police, was overly concerned with the demonstration. People stood around chatting as if they were in a bar having a caña, and had it not been for the banners I would have thought they were a tour group.

Including the officers required to redirect the traffic, the ratio of police to protestors was at least 1:1 or better. Were that many police really necessary? Did they have to close the roads for a mile? Once I reached the point where the roads were open again I realized the true extent of the traffic jam. Cars were backed up for nearly another mile. I’m not against the public protests and I’m not against the police involvement in them but isn’t there a better way to do them? Close the roads for two miles if you are going to have a thousand protests, but for a hundred? The same goes for the protesting group – if you’re going to the trouble of organizing a protest, at least show up – physically and mentally.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Per my mom's request, here are also before and after pictures of our turkey, Paco el Pavo.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Thanksgiving (and money)

Last night we celebrated El Día de Acción de Gracias, better known in the English-speaking world as Thanksgiving. In preparation for the 36 hour cooking spree I went to one of the stores dedicated to American foodstuffs and holidays products. These stores are notoriously expensive but they are inevitable if you are trying to plan a good-old American feast. While there I picked up my Thanksgiving necessities such as canned yams, marshmallows, and cranberry sauce. The few items pictured above cost me about 40 euros, $60 or so. A serious gouging. But for a once-a-year celebration it’s worth it.

When my friend was visiting a couple weeks ago she kept commenting on how expensive things were. It’s certainly true when you look at American products like Special K cereal and Diet Coke (and with the weak dollar). But, those prices are probably offset by other things – like the pack of 15 Christmas cards I picked up for 50 cents.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sin Palabras

Saturday night we went to the Spain-Sweden soccer match at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. They’re in the classification stage for Eurocopa 2008 and Spain lost the previous faceoff 0-2 in Sweden. In an effort to ensure a full stadium and reap every benefit possible from the home field advantage, the government decided to keep the game tickets as cheap as possible. It worked – the stadium was packed (at just 17€ that’s not a surprise), the crowd was energized, and the Spaniards pulled off a 3-0 victory. For me one of the highlights was the playing of the Spanish national anthem. Sports-infused Spanish patriotism was in full force and it really was an impressive sight – the singing, the flags, the cheers. (Not the best camera work, I know.)

I’ve always been amazed that the lack of words doesn’t damper the party. But after the scene at the soccer game (and especially after seeing the massive pre-game botellon [street drinking parties]) I’ve decided that the lack of words actually lets people sing out with more energy and complete abandon. Thinking of the Star Spangled Banner, I never sing with all my gusto. Who can hit that high “free” note anyway? If all I had to sing was, “lalalalala,” I would probably just let myself go.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Baby Steps

Sometimes when we’re out somewhere people watching Nacho will say, “That girl looks American.” I always wonder how he can say that when, to me at least, everyone we pass on the street could be American. Spain still has a long way to go before it reaches such diversity, but it’s definitely on its way. I was intrigued by the diversity shown in this ad posted in the Metro the other day. I think it’s safe to say that 10 or even 5 years ago the little kids would all have looked a bit more similar. It is interesting, though, that there are no dark-skinned children in the ad. But like we learned from What About Bob – it’s all about baby steps.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


As ridiculous as it’s going to sound, when I was younger I would sometimes watch C-Span at my grandparent’s house. I think I did it simply because I could. We didn’t have cable TV at home and my grandparents did, so the two weeks of vacation at their house meant Nickelodeon, MTV, and C-Span. Once I got over the novelty of it I realized how mind-numbingly boring the channel actually was. The magic of making a new law was not as exciting as my Civics teacher would like and it did nothing to inspire my interest in political science. I think had the US congressmen been more like their Spanish counterparts I might have been more enthused. Today the news showed a clip of the Spanish politicians arguing over the recent price hike of basic necessities (milk is up 12.5%!). It was not just more interesting than the rest of Spanish TV (not a major accomplishment) – it was actually entertaining. They yell, they make jokes, they talk out of turn. And I actually watched it long enough to learn something.

Monday, November 5, 2007

On the Fence

Today’s top news story is the visit of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Located on the northern coast of Africa and completely surrounded by Morocco, the cities are cause for major sovereignty disputes between Spain and Morocco, and with this week’s royal visit the scene of protests by the latter. Truth be told, the cities are a regular fixture on the news due to their uncomfortable position at the center of immigration conflicts between Africa and the EU. Instead of trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar in precarious rafts, many Africans choose to attempt entrance into one of the two cities, thus giving them easier access to the rest of Europe. Because of that, both of the enclaves are surrounded by a double-rowed border fence, measuring 10 feet in height, topped with barbed wire, and equipped with motion sensors, night-vision cameras, and guard posts. Despite the impressive defenses, the fences are the sight of regular and organized attacks from groups of Africans (sometimes numbering into the hundreds) trying to scale the barrier and gain entrance. Typically some of them are successful at the cost of their own serious injuries and of others who are injured or even killed. Currently Spanish law allows for the immigrants to remain in Spain unless the government can prove the person’s identity and illegal status. The immigrants are actually at an advantage by not having documentation.

Reading up on the topic makes me think of the immigration disputes that exist in the States over the entrance of illegal immigrants from Mexico and beyond. If I remember correctly there is even discussion of and potential legislation proposing construction of a fence along the border. Before proceeding, it would seem prudent for the Washington lawmakers to study the cases of Ceuta and Melilla. Would the construction of such a fence lead to similar tactics by the would-be immigrants? Attacks where people are trampled by the masses in a desperate attempt to reach the promised land? What exactly is the acceptable price to pay to keep people out of the “civilized” world?

Update: Today's news confirms that trying to hop the fence is the lesser of two evils.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Three Hours

My sister and brother-in-law moved to Scotland yesterday. The move’s finally come to fruition after about 6 months of negotiations, and I couldn’t be happier to have them so close. Granted, Edinburgh is still a good three-hour plane ride away, but compared to twelve that’s pretty reasonable! It’s like the trip from Fort Lauderdale to St. Louis. I find it hard to resist comparing the continent of Europe to the county of the United States. I can only figure that, as an American, I look for something of similar size to which I can compare my homeland. Distances, populations, time zones – they are only comparable if I look at Europe as a whole. Like that old line, “pick on someone your own size!” I tell Spaniards that I went to college 13 hours by car from my home or that each summer we spent over 20 hours in the car to reach the Florida beaches, and they start to figure how close to Russia they could get in that much time. But Russia will have to wait for me. Edinburgh is next on my list!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Winter's on its Way

After more than three years living in tropical South Florida, I now find myself truly appreciative of the changing seasons in Madrid. It doesn't seem as though it's been all that long since I wrote about the arrival of autumn, and the city is already transforming into winter-Madrid. The grocery stores have brought out their displays of holidays sweets – mantecados, polvorones, turrones, and mazapanes overflow from their baskets. (I'm going to get a better picture tomorrow. My camera battery died on me!)

Ice cream stands are being replaced with makeshift stalls selling roasted chestnuts, sweet potatoes, and churros. And finally, my favorite sign of winter, and one of my very favorite things about living in Madrid - the holiday lights. Although they aren't lit yet, they have been hung all along the streets in my neighborhood. Makes me happy just to see them.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Happy Birthday, Enrique!!

This week I had my first visit to a Spanish hospital. Luckily it was for a happy reason – my cousin-in-law had her baby!! Health care for the expat is a tricky thing – you never know quite what to expect and you usually only finally get to experience it at the worst possible moment. I continue to be amazed at private Spanish doctors’ offices. Don’t expect a clinical setting! It’s not uncommon to visit your doctor in a residential building and in an office that feels an awfully lot like an apartment. En cambio, the public Spanish hospital felt reassuringly like a private American hospital. And that should really come as no surprise considering the Spanish health system is top 10 in the world (check out the WHO's ranking and keep scrolling if you want to find the USA). Gotta love it when you can actually see your taxes at work. (Not that I'm actually paying taxes yet. Our appointment at the immigration office today served only to inform us that I shouldn't bother watching the mailbox for at least another 3 months!)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Enough Already!

Today I realized that as well I think I may have assimilated into the Spanish society, I will never be Spanish.

Spain is all abuzz today because of yesterday’s final leg of the Formula 1 racing season. Going into the race there was a chance that national hero, Fernando Alonso, could win it all. And there was a bigger chance that his hated teammate, Englishman Lewis Hamilton, would win. The rivalry between the McLaren teammates has been a constant fixture on Spanish TV since about mid-season when everyone decided the British team was clearly favoring the young Brit. But with this weekend’s final race and with the points so close, hatred for the Englishman was nearing boiling point. Someone even set up a website allowing Alonso’s fans, and by definition, Hamilton’s enemies, to scatter the race track with all manner of shrapnel to flatten the rival’s tire. There were “I hate Hamilton” posters hung in windows and people were just as excited at the prospect of Hamilton losing as they were at Alonso’s winning.

And what happened come race time? The Spanish sportsmanship dropped another few notches. When, shortly after the start of the race Hamilton veered off the course and dropped several positions, the radio commentator’s response was, “Toma, Hamilton!!” “Take that, Hamilton!” And when later in the race the Brit dropped to last place, after reporting a problem with his gears, the TV reporters could barely contain their joy. With his technical problems Hamilton ended up 7th in the race making that a victory for Spain in the Spanish press’ mind. He also ended up second in the season points, behind the long shot, inoffensive Finnish Kimi Räikkönen - leaving poor Alonso in third place. Even this final podium standing was a "victory" because, although he did beat Alonso, Hamilton didn’t actually win anything.

More TV time has been spent celebrating that “loss” than honoring Alonso’s third place finish. And if I thought the commentary during the race was woeful, the media has surpassed even itself with today’s reports. One of the evening humor shows had the entire audience chanting, “Hamilton lost! Hamilton lost!” On another they blamed today’s immense traffic jams in Barcelona on whom? None other than Formula 1’s reining silver-medalist.

Now, I’m all for a cleverly-written joke or a healthy rivalry (Duke-UNC, for example) but I could not be happier that that Formula 1 season is finally over. Perhaps my lack of Spanish blood prevents me from truly commiserating with the entire nation on the unjust travesty that has been Alonso’s season. Maybe, as one classmate suggested, I simply don’t understand Formula 1 since we Americans only watch NASCAR. I personally think that I’m simply an unbiased observer in an overly biased environment. The complete and utter media overload that has been the Formula 1 season served only to transform this ambivalent observer into one who groans whenever someone says Fernando Alonso.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Feeling Blue

A big part of this blog has been dedicated to all of differences I’ve noted between the States and Spain. To change things up a bit, I’ve decided to write this post about a similarity instead, and I’ve chosen that which I find the most fun and perhaps the most uniting of all – children’s TV shows. “Children of the 80s” the world over (at least in North America and Western Europe) can unite over a shared fondness for Saved By the Bell (Salvado por la Campana), Beverly Hills 90210 (Sensación de Vivir), and Growing Pains (Los Problemas Crecen). But the true bonding comes when, perhaps over a rum & coke one night, we start to reminisce about Saturday morning cartoons. The Smurfs, Fraggle Rock, Muppet Babies, and Scooby-Doo were the true heroes, and Smurfette (Pitufina) and Kermit the Frog (La Rana Gustavo) decorated bedrooms, pencil cases, and backpacks in Madrid just as they did in Missouri.

Decades later, most of us can still sing the intro to Sesame Street (although, the words are only “lalala” in Spain – not unlike the Spanish national anthem) and anything overwhelmingly blue is most definitely Smurf-like. Those shows will stick with us forever. Although they are just simple cartoons, there’s no denying that the children’s series have underlying meanings and important lessons for the kiddies. The Smurfs, after all, include the classic figures of everyday life – the tattooed meathead (Hefty Smurf), the glasses-wearing know-it-all (Brainy), the wizened old man (Papa), and the evil villain (Gargamel) – and their weekly adventures taught teamwork, kindness, and acceptance. Similar concepts were dealt with regularly in the complex underground world of Fraggle Rock, on the sidewalks of Sesame Street and in the Muppet Babies’ nursery. A good friend and honesty were the answer to every problem. When it comes down to it, what shaped us as children was more or less the same on either side of the Atlantic. Perhaps we aren’t so different after all.

P.S. The pic is of a very old and very loved Smurf figurine back from the days when my dad travelled for work. Every business trip meant a new Smurf! Be sure to click on him for a surprise.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

La Zeta

2008 is election year both in the States and in Spain, with the Spanish getting an 8 month head start on their potential change in leader. It’s not surprising, then, that the debates have started and the political ads are becoming a regular fixture on TV.

Today I saw a new commercial for the incumbent Socialist party leader, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. The spot shows a laid-back Zapatero (sans tie) laughing at some of the puppet parodies of him that are so popular on Spanish TV. In this case the fodder for the satirists is his conspicuous use of the Castilian “lisp” - also commonly referred to as “la zeta,” it is the pronunciation of C’s and Z’s as a “th” sound that is characteristic of mainland Spain, and the further , softer “lisping” of the D’s in central Spain (like Zapatero’s native Valladolid). Conveniently some of the big buzz words in modern Spanish politics end with “-dad” (more or less the equivalent of those ending in “-ity” in English). Pronounce them the right way and you’ve got a series of words ending in “z.” Seguridad, identidad, humilidad, modernidad – they all provide the perfect opportunity for a patent zeta pronunciation. Pretty ingenious if you ask me. In one minute you get to casually word-drop all the big issues and you even manage to associate them back to the letter “Z.” And what does Zapatero start with?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

De Madrid al Cielo

I've often wondered about the Romans. Not the orgy-loving, toga-wearing, lion-fighting ones, mind you. I mean the modern Romans who go about their daily lives catching a bus in front of the Coliseum, winding a moped past the Pantheon, grabbing a beer by the Forum. I wonder if they ever stop and think about how their lives are played out against one of the most incredible backdrops the world has to offer. Instead of stopping and staring as the millions of tourists do, in all likelihood most Romans probably take their surroundings for granted. They certainly wouldn’t be the only ones immune to the beauty in daily life. How many New Yorkers do you think stop and wonder at the sheer mass of Manhattan as they rush to work? How many Londoners consider the history beneath their feet as they cross the Tower Bridge to go to work? How many Madrileños appreciate the variety of Spanish architecture as they hurry to the Metro? The answer is pretty clear - not enough.

Occasionally I am reminded by how “cool” it is to live in Madrid – for example, a friend who I recently re-found on Facebook confessed her envy when I gave her my quick life update. She reminded me that Madrid is an amazing city and I’m learning to stop and appreciate that as much as possible. On my semi-weekly trek across town to French class I’ve started trying to look up as much as traffic (both pedestrian and vehicular) allows. In doing so I’ve become fascinated by an oddity on some of the buildings here – an architectural element that I’ve affectionately come to call the rich man’s club house. At the very top of some of the large buildings there is a “penthouse” located only at the corner of the building. Clearly I’m having a hard time putting this into words - onto the picture…

I suppose these penthouses have some architectural meaning or purpose, like a widow’s walk of sorts. I imagine that hidden out of view on the rest of the building’s roof you’ll find secret gardens with playgrounds, pools, and flower beds – like Apu’s secret Kwik-E-Mart rooftop oasis.

There is an old saying that places Madrid next only to Heaven, “De Madrid al cielo.” Literally that could also mean, “from Madrid to the sky.” And that’s where I’m starting to look.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

American Character

McDonald’s has recently started marketing their Beef Supreme burger. The burger in itself is fairly simple – beef, bacon, two slices of cheddar cheese, and your choice of sauce. Maybe the sauce is what makes it American? One is a creamy parmesan and the other… well, the other I’m not sure what the other is. They describe it only as, “a unique sauce in the purest American style.” Maybe it’s ranch? I should stop in and ask one of their workers to see how they describe the taste of such a purely American sauce. And what marketing genius came up with the slogan, “a hamburger with authentic American character.” Has American character suddenly become popular again? And what exactly does that mean anyway? Does the burger come in a box three times too big? Or is it a burger that only half the country thinks tastes good? Come to think of it, the Burger King slogan, “Have it your way,” is really the authentic American character. We want things how we want them and when we want them, and in most cases that’s what we get. A choice of two sauces? Ha! Real American style would be to take the sauce from the Italian chicken sandwich, change the cheese to Swiss, and double the bacon. And don’t give me a dirty look for being difficult. The customer is always right, right?

Who knew a cheeseburger would get me so riled up? It was probably all because of the commercial (see it here). It catches your attention for sure but I’m not sure what it’s selling. Maybe it’s trying to convince all those Spaniards that they don’t need English classes – all they need is a good cheeseburger. Who knows? I’ve never claimed to understand the science behind marketing. What I do like about the commercial is the fact that, if you look closely, you'll see that they filmed the spot outside a McAuto. McDonalds with drive-thrus are not all that common here. And, let's be honest, what's more American than a drive-thru? But I also like
the accent of the third guy, Paco. To me he sounds the most like an American.

The American (I mean US-ian but that’s so awkward, so bear with me) accent is a funny thing. Non-Americans tend to say that we speak as though we have gum in our mouths. I don’t know what that means, really, except that maybe we move our mouths a lot? I saw an example of this on TV a few months ago. While interviewing a girl for a model-search show here one of the judges asked her, “how on earth do you think you can come to a casting with gum in your mouth?” Turns out she wasn’t chewing gum at all but one of her parents is American and she spent the first 7 years of her life in America. What must it sound like when an American actually IS talking with gum in her mouth?

Saturday, October 6, 2007


They still do them in Spain. Can you believe that? Pretty darn cool. We had a minor medical emergency last night and were able to get a doctor to come out early this morning. We had to wait a couple of hours between the call and the arrival of the doctor but, as my mom pointed out, you could easily wait that long - or longer - in an emergency room. When he did arrive, the doctor was well-prepared, did a proper exam and prescribed the necessary remedy. In most of the United States I think this tradition died out a century ago, but I wouldn't necessarily call such service old-fashioned. Instead I think it's quite a modern take on customer service and health care.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Planes Over the Plaza

Something is up in Madrid today, but I'm not sure what. Airplanes don't typically fly directly over the City so I found it strange that on my way to French class this morning I saw a literal parade of them. It started as I was crossing through Plaza de Cibeles in the center of town and the unmistakable sound of fighter jets drowned out the traffic and sirens. Following the dozen or so jets flying in tandem, came three large cargo planes each escorted by an additional jet. Bringing up the rear were six helicopters. (I didn't think to take a picture until the end so all I got were the helicopters.) As the procession passed over the look on most people's faces was one of surprise and unease. I suppose that is the instinctive reaction in the 21st century. But why was the sky filled with these clearly-military aircraft? There's likely a simple explanation. I'm guessing maybe it's a dry run for the festivities on next week's Spanish National Day. Anyone know for sure?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Dress Code

When Nacho got home from work today I commented on how nice he looked in a suit sans tie. He said, "Estoy de socialista." Loosely translated as, "I'm like a socialist." Huh? Apparently traditionally you could tell someones political slant by how he dressed. Suit & tie - conservative, suit sans tie - socialist, no suit - communist. Things don't follow such a strict rule anymore but this definitely has me checking out the men on the street and on TV.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

All's Fair in Sports and...

There are a lot of things about Spanish "politics" and "business" that I simply do not understand. In fact, the more I see the less I understand. And the more I see the more convinced I am that the powerful people in Spain, whether their power is in the form of business, sport, or politics, are really all colleagues in the same lio (mess). The latest drop in my bucket of confusion falls from the hybrid tree of sports, business, and media.

Thursday evening much of Madrid was finishing their dinner in preparation for a couple of hours watching the public TV station La Sexta for the Real Madrid-Betis soccer game. Less than an hour before the planned emission it was announced that Real Madrid was not allowing the La Sexta crew to broadcast the game and that the match would be available through pay-per-view only. What ensued was pure television chaos. When hubby Nacho tried to purchase the match through our Telefónica Imagenio (cable) service we lost the cable programming all together - no pay-per-view, no guide, no channels whatsoever. When he tried to restart the service he was met with all kinds of error messages and we were unable to get any channels for the rest of the night. After resigning himself to listen to the match on the radio he discovered that those people who had managed to order the game through the PPV screen were still without an image well into the second half of the match.

What surprised (I'm naive, I know) and confused me about the whole event was that there were clearly major politics happening behind the scenes to cause such an about-face so close to game time. Real Madrid's official position is that, as an acceptable agreement with La Sexta was not reached in time for the broadcast, they proceeded with a previous agreement with the pay-per-view provider. La Sexta argues that an agreement HAD been reached and that la Liga, governing body of Spanish soccer, had chosen the Real Madrid-Betis game as the one "free" game of the week. (A 1997 law states that one free "general interest" soccer game shall be broadcast per week. The Real Madrid-Betis game was the last of the week.) Apparently there are major companies with political and sporting interests and connections that are fighting over who gets to broadcast what games. A more in-depth discussion (done by someone clearly much less naive than I) of the politics at work can be found at South of Watford.

Some reports indicate that La Sexta's parent company, Mediapro, is possibly pursuing civil action against Ramon Calderón, president of Real Madrid, for denying them access to the game and violating the above-mentioned law guaranteeing one "free" game per week. Likely he would never actually be sanctioned. I'm fairly certain, especially considering he's a lawyer by trade, that the tangled web of politics-sports-business-media also includes the courts.

Friday, September 28, 2007

We Didn't Start the Fire

There's been a spate of photo-burnings lately. And not the kind accompanied by a glass of wine, a trash can, and a stack of pictures of your ex. A couple of weeks ago when King Juan Carlos I was in Girona, Catalunya to inaugurate a new Technological Park some kids (late teens) burned a picture of him and the queen. Apparently the act of burning a picture of the monarch is illegal in Spain and a search ensued to find the perpetrators. So far two of the first group have been identified with a reported nine witnesses to be identified and questioned next week. Also in for questioning is the photographer who documented the incident and who has refused to surrender the rest of his film from that day. In support of that first group and to add fuel to the fire (pun intended) four masked people repeated the act today at the University of Barcelona. Rumor has it that people are also organizing a massive "photo-burning" demonstration on October 12, Spanish National Day.

Unlike the States, burning of the flag, or a picture of the figurehead leader, is illegal in Spain. Most of the demonstrations involving such activities are in protest of the Spanish national government and in favor of regional independence - Catalunya, Pais Vasco, etc. When doing some research online I found a website, Burntflag.com, that allows you to express disgust with your country of choice without fear of legal repercussions. Interestingly enough the top flag burned online is from Spain - 46% of the total!! Are Spaniards more disgruntled with their government than the rest of the world? Or does the illegality of the burning, flag or photo, make it somehow more appealing? Would it be such a statement and gather such attention if it weren't illegal? It seems to me as though the government and press is furthering the cause of the demonstrators by giving them such national coverage.


All signs point to fall's arrival in Madrid. Just as the leaves change colors, so does the character of the City. Summer work schedules are at an end. The streets are once again full of Spaniards. Kids everywhere are dressed in navy and grey (standard school uniform colors) and shop windows are filled with boots, sweaters, and coats. The sidewalk terraces are slowly getting packed up. Gazpacho is off the lunch menu and people are starting to crave cocido instead. Sure, there are some cons to the arrival of fall in Madrid - traffic is worse, lines at the supermarket are longer, and there's no more procrastinating with work and school. But if you enjoy city life September in Madrid is what it's all about.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Aubergines in Autumn

As an American I tend(ed) to make my grocery list without thought to the seasons, as I was confident that whatever I needed would be easily found at the store. That's not quite the case here in Spain. Over the summer my list included broccoli and I was shocked to not find it in the stores. Produce here is limited by the seasons, and while I at first found this annoying I have learned to appreciate the freshness of what IS available. And I have even learned to take inspiration from the supermarket. Earlier this week I was in the store grabbing a bag of carrots (which ARE available year-round) when I spotted some aubergines (right, Mom?). I'd never cooked eggplants before but I decided to give it a try - the autumn flavors were calling to me. And I was not disappointed by the results. From now on I think I'll just put "veggies" on the list and see what catches my eye.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Thoughts Upon My Return

Flying into Madrid yesterday I was reassured to find myself happy about the return. I've always been a firm believer in the idea that when faced with a tough decision you should just make a choice and then see how that choice makes you feel. I was pretty sure that coming to Spain was the right choice for us, but the fact that I was comforted by the sight of the Spanish plains was definitely a bonus. (On a side note, I was actually struck by how the fields in the rural outskirts of Madrid reminded me of the patchwork colors of the Midwestern plains in the States. Perhaps that's partly why I was comforted by the sight?)

Just in case I was somehow uncertain if I had actually arrived in Madrid or in the States, I was quickly greeted by a whiff of cigarette smoke. I know that the government is making strides towards curbing the Spanish smoking epidemic, and I definitely think progress is being made, but it's hard to change something so deeply ingrained in the culture. In my two weeks Stateside I don't think I smelled smoke even once (granted my smoking friends were out of town and my social time was mostly spent at house-parties, not bars...), but once back in Spain I was confronted with it before I even reached the passport control.

Once I reached home I was happy to see that my public health card had finally arrived. I would certainly have received any needed health care as I was officially in the "system," but possession of the actual card is reassuring. They'd said it would take about a month to get the card but mine arrived more than 3 months later. Perhaps it was delayed by the summer-time lag. I'm hoping my work permit and residency are not similarly delayed.

While in St. Louis I loaded up on American toiletries and drugs. I'm trying to break myself of the connection to those items that I am most familiar with, but I'm not there just yet, so I took advantage of the trip to stock up. My thinking in wanting to make that break is partly because of the price (5€ for Dove deodorant and 11€ for a 4-pack of razors?!?!?) but mostly because I think it's unhealthy to be constantly thinking of what I left behind. That being said, I've been working on a list of those items that I enjoy/miss most from both the St. Louis and Madrid. (I've chosen those instead of the States and Spain simply because I'm most familiar with them. But some of these things are available country-wide.) It's a work in progress. Can you help me add to it?

  • Cloudless skies (a rarity in St. Louie)
  • Claras
  • Eggs with the expiration date stamped on the shell (strange, I know)
  • Cheap taxis
  • The "Chinese" stores (like the dollar-stores in the States but sooo much better!)
  • Metro
  • Gazpacho


  • TJ Maxx & Marshalls
  • St. Louis Bread Co. (known as Panera elsewhere in the States)
  • Toasted Ravioli
  • Day-quil & Ny-quil
  • Expanded and HD cable TV
  • Baseball
  • House parties (really in South Florida since that's where my friends do it best!)

Flying Business

I'm back and as a follow-up to my earlier post about business class...

I think that on an international flight, if you can easily afford it (or get it with airmiles like I did), business class is completely worth the price. There was actually no First Class on the Delta flight, so I don't actually know if business class is similar on other carriers or if this was like first class...) I was totally impressed with the service, food, and comfort. Meals are served on china with crystal and real silverware (and tiny-little S&P shakers!) and the flight attendants are extremely attentive. On the domestic flights, it was still a nice treat to have free drinks and good service, but I don't know if it's really worth the price (unless of course you get your company to foot the bill!!) Another major bonus is the business lounge that you have access to during layovers. Open bar, snacks, and a totally stress-free ambience is a welcome respite from the noise and bustle of the airport terminals. I was spoiled by the whole experience.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Slow Ride

When I got back into St. Louis this week I took out one of the cars for a little shopping expedition. Driving a car is, I guess, like riding a bicycle - you don't really ever forget how to do it. However, I look at my return to Spain with a certain trepidation as one of the items at the top of my to-do list for my return to Spain is to sign-up for classes at an autoescuela - I need to get my Spanish driver's license. I've been driving for 12 years and (luckily) have spent most of that time driving a manual transmission; getting behind the wheel of the car is second nature. But I have a feeling things will be slightly different in Madrid.

When I was living in South Florida a report was published about the drivers in various American cities. South Florida placed first on the list in terms of speeding and aggressive driving. St. Louis placed first on the opposite list in recognition of its conscientious and polite drivers. Even so, even after almost 4 years of South Florida driving, the thought of driving in Madrid scares me a little. It seems like a silly fear - after all most of the time you can't go much over 35 miles (km) per hour and little fender benders, scratches, and bumps seem a part of daily life. But cruising down the wide lanes basking in the stark absence of mopeds, I'm reminded of how frenetic Madrid driving can be.

People already know that I'm not Spanish by my accent (although I'm working on that); I wonder if the same will be true with my driving. Will the blink of my turn signal tell the world that a guiri is at the wheel?

P.S. The title of the post is in honor of the Foghat song playing on the radio as I drove back home this afternoon - quite appropriate.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Hopping the puddle

Tomorrow I'm heading back to the States for a couple weeks. I'm stopping first in South Florida for an engagement party and some good, old-fashioned American house parties. Then it's on to St. Louis for family time. I'm expecting lots of fun in both places, not least of all because my birthday is this weekend. So I'll get to celebrate it three times - once in Florida, again in St. Louie and lastly when I get back to Madrid. For the short-term I am mostly excited about getting to sit in First and Business classes for the bulk of the trip. (Thanks to Delta for giving that bonus on the air mile award tickets.) I'll finally get behind that mystical curtain!! We'll see if it's worth all the fuss. If the urge strikes, I'll blog from St. Louis. If not, see you in a couple weeks!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Samosas in Spain

I think it's safe to say that when you think of great Indian food in Europe you think of London not Madrid. But over the past couple of weeks I've tried two Indian restuarants here in Madrid and been quite impressed with both. If you're over on the eastern side of town here are my reviews:

First a friend treated me to lunch at Swagat up near the Diego de Leon metro stop. It's hidden away at Alonso Heredia #22 but once you've found it you're sure to venture back. Their midday lunch menu is 11euros - I chose vegetable samosas and chicken tandoori. The samosas were outstanding and the tandoori well above average. Although the portions were a touch on the small side the menu did, of course, include a drink and dessert. And they've put a lot of effort into the decor and charm of the place which just added to the experience.

A couple weeks ago we went to Bombay Palace with Nacho's cousins. It's right around the corner from our house and not too far from the Ibiza metro. We wanted to get a menu disgustación - a mix of lots of different dishes - but with the late hour it wasn't available... so we just made up our own. We ordered some samosas (veggie and meat), each picked a main dish, ordered some naan (delicious!!), and three different kinds of rice. The fruit rice was awesome - full of dried fruits and the right mix of flavors. Of the main dishes my favorites were the butter chicken and the vegetable korma (my pick). The veggie korma was actually a big hit with the others, too. I think their exact words were, "This is something I never would have ordered but it turned out to be my favorite."

Thursday, August 23, 2007

En el campo

Like many Spaniards, the summer weekends mean an exodus to the pueblos to escape the heat of the city and, hopefully, enjoy the cool of a private pool (see previous post on the pueblo). Such is the case for Nacho's family. Now that his parents are retired they spend more than just the weekend there but we, obviously, don't yet have that luxury. Last weekend we took the bus to Nacho's parents' house in their pueblo - La Adrada - up in the mountains - la Sierra de Gredos. It was a relaxing weekend of pool time, cool breezes, and home-cooked food. We were treated to chipirones en su tinta con arroz (little squids cooked in their ink and served with rice) - delicious, I swear - and merluza a la cidra (hake fish cooked in cider) as main dishes. But I can't forget the albondigas (meatballs), empanadillas, and pimientos (roasted and stuffed bell peppers) that came first! One of the best parts of the weekends up in the mountains is the food!!! But the view was pretty nice too. The mountains in front are a popular launching pad for paragliders so we had something to watch. :)

Monday, August 20, 2007


I'm attaching this video taken from the AVE to try and show how it felt to ride along at almost 200mph, though I'm not sure it really captured the speed. Nacho tried to add some drama in there at the end. :) It was a really cool trip, extremely comfortable and a new experience. There's a debate going on about whether it's worth the money or not. Our roundtrip tickets Madrid-Taragonna cost 125 euros each. I think it's worth it, especially since our final destination was Reus and not Barcelona, meaning we saved our hosts 2 2-hour roundtrips.

Reus & Taragonna

A couple weeks ago Nacho and I caught the AVE over to Tarragona to visit one of his old coworkers. She actually lives inland a little at Reus but we spent most of our time at the local beaches. Friday we went to La Pineda and Saturday to Altafulla. The beaches there are beautiful; the sand was fine and white and the water was absolutely perfect - clear, clean, and cool. On Friday I bought a green raft and that made all the difference. I could have spent hours floating in the water. Altafulla was a charming setting with little rental houses right along the beach boardwalk. We went to a little place famous for its paella for lunch and were not disappointed.

Sunday we went into Taragonna for some sight-seeing and the aperitivo. Turns out Taragonna was once the capital of the Roman province of Hispania and the city (and the region) are filled with ruins. On the road from Reus to Altafulla we came across this funeraly tower from the 1st century.

There is a pretty hefty Roman ruin route in Taragonna where you can see the amphitheater, forum, and various walls and ruins.

Taragonna also has it's own more modern customs, such as that of building the human towers during the fesitvals of San Magi. On their Ramblas (which I found out refers to a wide boulevard ending at the ocean) you find this statue commemorating that tradition. By the way, I think the festivals were this past weekend and the human towers went up without incidence.

Overall we enjoyed our trip to the region. Reus is, in itself, a cute city (100,000 inhabitants) with a charming old quarter, main plaza, and church. But not a day went by when we didn't spend at least an hour in the car. Combine that with the mildly limited entertainment options and we were glad to get back to Madrid.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

August 15

Today is the Assumption and, good "Catholic" country that it is, that means a fiesta in Spain. Here in Madrid it's also the Virgen of the Paloma - patron saint(ess) of the City and of the bomberos (firemen). From what I understand sometime in the late 1700s a very pious Madrileña saved a picture of the Virgen from a group of rowdy neighorhood boys and then built a chapel in her honor. After the queen's sick son was reportedly cured by a pass beneath the picture, the Virgen became cause for celebration. It's still common practice for mother's to carry their children beneath her picture and she's honored today as the "most revered of Virgens." Translation: in addition to a mid-week work break, Madrileños get a big party in the streets down in the La Latina neighborhood.

We headed down there for lunch today and it of course turned into a full afternoon of drinks in the street. This evening the party will be even bigger - the steets are decorated with banners, flags, and flowers and all of the bars have set up outside bars to serve the party-goers. Right now we can watch the parade - a group of fireman will carry a picture of the Virgen through the streets for all to see.

Today is also the big summer lottery drawing - 20,000,000 euros to the winner and various smaller prizes to those who match parts of the winning number. This drawing is basically the second biggest of the year - after the Christmas Lottery. Fingers crossed!!

P.S. I still plan to blog on last weekend's trip to Tarragona and Reus. But mid-week fiestas get in the way... :)

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

My Morning Walk

Tuesday and Thursday mornings I walk across Madrid to my French class and then back home again. Since my house and the academy are more or less on opposite sides of what is "central Madrid" the walk takes me about 40 minutes and covers a little less than 2.5 miles each way. I started walking because there is really just one bus that would take me there and the metro connections aren't great. Plus the walk is really nice - especially in the morning (8:30ish) when the temperature is still manageable. The first part of the way - across the Retiro - is the perfect way to wake up because of the quietness and relative solitude (in the midst of a City of 4 million crossing paths with perhaps 20 people in 15 minutes is pretty quiet).

After the park I head down two of the major Madrid streets - Alcalá and Gran Vía - passing a decent cross-section of the Madrid population. As I do I wonder how many of those people are "walkers" like me and how many are simply on their way to a mass-transit stop. I definitely appreciate the massive bus and metro networks that cross Madrid and I take advantage of them on a fairly daily basis. But I am also appreciative of what a walkable city Madrid really is, at least from where I live. There is an old saying in St. Louis that you are 20 minutes from everywhere. For Madrid I'd change that to 30 minutes; in about half an hour I can get - on foot - to just about anywhere I want to go.

Friday, August 3, 2007


One of my friends got into town yesterday, and she came bearing gifts. I had casually mentioned our favorite bagel flavors to her one day and she managed to bring them to us!! Along with a bunch of other stuff. Parmesan goldfish, ranch dressing, frito twists, luna bars, jelly beans, Reese's cups. So yummy! This friend lived with me here in Madrid for two years about 4 or 5 years ago so she knew all too well exactly what I would be missing the most...

...my bagel of course - asiago cheese with sun-dried tomato cream cheese. It just cannot be beat. And the cream cheese travelled surprisingly well! But, in one of life's cruel jokes I've had some kind of throat problem lately that makes eating not all that much fun. I loaded up on painkillers and cough syrup to be able to enjoy the bagel today. And it worked. I'm completely satisfied. :)

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Not Bad

Nacho and I went to Hespen & Suarez today to see about getting those bagels. As you can see from the picture above we were succesful - at least in name. Would the bagels satisfy my craving? They did okay. For lunch we made bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches on sesame bagels and they were quite yummy. But for just a toasted bagel with cream cheese I'm not sure how they'll be. I also bought an onion one and am going to try it tomorrow with herb cream cheese (Philadelphia brand - they didn't have any ay H&S) and see how it turns out. For the most part the bagels were a touch dry on the inside and not as chewy as we would hope. But Nacho was quite satisfied. :) I was really tempted by the gorgeous carrot cake they had too, but... 45€!! I'm going to have to try and bake one! :)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Hah-ree Poe-tur

Ironically enough, the biggest chink in my Spanish armor (aside from the subjunctive, of course) is using English words. When a conversation includes an English word, you've got to put a Spanish twist on it or people won't understand. I remember when I first realized this - a friend and I were at a party discussing American TV with some guys. They kept referring to "Chungo," as best we could make out. It took us a good 10 minutes to realize they meant Chuck Norris (don't ask). I've more or less mastered my most commonly used words, like Red Hot Chili Peppers, George Bush, etc. But occasionally a new one pops up. This past weekend I went to buy the new Harry Potter and it happened again. "Harry Potter." "Qué??" "Hah-ree Poe-tur." "Ahh, sí." It's all in the pronunciation.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


Spanish men, along with their Italian counterparts are famous the world over - or atleast in the States - for being, um... very outwardly flirtacious. It's something that you just get used to - especially if you're blond. But things took a surprising turn as I've been going to some job interviews (yay!) this week and last. As I've walked the streets in suits and heels, the catcalls have definitely multiplied. I mean, it's one thing to make a comment to a foreign-looking young lady in sandals and a sundress, but I was sure that they would decrease or even stop in the face of a professional, modern woman. I was wrong. Why is that?

Monday, July 16, 2007

On a mission

I have one major goal this week - find a decent bagel in Madrid. I woke up yesterday with a tremendous craving for a bagel. It was quite possibly the result of a minor hangover but whatever the cause the slumbering bagel beast inside me has stirred and cannot be satiated. So, I'm going in search of that scrumptious circle of bread. I have done my internet searches and have some clue of where to look. I already know where not to look. When I first arrived I was excited to see that one of the fastfood chains advertised bagels, but a small, round loaf of bread with a hole in the middle does not necessarily mean a bagel. Despite that, my expectations are not set too high. I have resigned myself to not being able to find a perfectly baked asiago cheese bagel slathered with sundried tomato cream cheese. But a nice sesame bagel, chewy on the outside and soft on the inside, will do. I'll keep you all posted on my progress.

Interestingly enough, in the eternal Madrid-Barcelona competition, the internet revealed that our Catalan neighbors might have the advantage. I found the link to a place called The Bagel Shop that almost makes me book a trip to Barcelona right now.

Monday, July 9, 2007

¡España! ¡España!

Patriotism in Spain, at least among the younger generations, is really only acceptable when in conjunction with a sporting event. The patriotic flags, t-shirts, and patches commonly seen in the States don't appear too much here. But when the various selecciones - national selection teams – are playing everyone’s a patriot. Same thing goes for whenever a Spaniard is competing in anything. The cause of this weekend’s outpouring of pride was twofold - Fernando Alonso competing in the Formula 1’s British Grand Prix and Rafael Nadal playing in the Wimbledon Championship. Spanish sports fans defend their compatriots to a fault. Alonso’s inability to win a race is not his fault, but instead is blamed on his sponsor’s favoritism (mental and equipment-al) of his British teammate. Rafa’s lost games and sets are not a result of incomplete play but rather a complicated strategy that only sometimes produces results (according to the extremely biased Spanish commentators).

Spain’s diehard support of anything Spanish (but only when in comparison to or in competition with anything international) is quite possibly a result of it being such a small nation, at least in contrast to the States – my only real basis of comparison. I certainly feel a stronger affinity to St. Louis than to the United States in general. A matter of size and intimacy, perhaps. But my pride goes deeper than just sports. So far, in Spain I’ve seen it just in sports. And maybe when it comes to food…

Monday, July 2, 2007

Feeling Sick

It's an illness from which all of us expats suffer. Most of the time it's in remission, but occasionally, and at the most random moments, it rears its ugly head. Today it hit me as I walked past a bridal store. Strange, I know, but not without logic. Two of my best friends have gotten engaged within the past couple of weeks and the bridal gowns made me think of them. Now, I'm not an overly girly-girl. Even during my own engagement my purchase of bridal magazines was kept to a minimum. But now that I am here I miss going dress shopping with them. Its moments like those that remind me of the distance between Madrid and Miami or Chicago - that remind me of how far I am from what was so recently home. Many things I don't even miss until some stupid little thing, like a bridal shop, makes me stop and think. It's good to be reminded, occasionally, of what we've left behind. After all, this was my decision and I knew that homesickness came with the whole kit-n-caboodle. The important thing is knowing where the temporary antidote lies - be it shopping the rebajas, having a clara on a terraza, or simply strolling through the park.

Friday, June 29, 2007

A walk through Retiro (Part I)

I like to think of the Retiro as Madrid's backyard. Living just a block or so away I go for a walk there most mornings. It's always full of people enjoying the open spaces - kids on the playgrounds, cyclists and roller bladers, readers lounging in the sun, people strolling through the various gardens. It's the place where Madrileños can get away from the streetlife they typically live. Earlier this week I took my camera with me to document some of my favorite places in the park.

One of my favorite walks through the park takes me first to the southern end that is covered in winding paths through overgrown hillsides and then to the western edge with its manicured garden. I most enjoy this path because of the stark contrast between the two settings.

Just after climbing up from the southern "hills" I find myself at the rose garden. Roses have never been my favorite flowers - but a garden full of them at the height of their bloom is a welcome assault on my senses. The beds are divided by rose type, color, and age of species - antiguas and modernas.
Along the way from the rose garden to the western entrance I pass two of my favorite trees - two trees that have probably been in the park for decades. The first will surely end up back on the ground at some point in the future as it impresses us with its flexibility.
The other is an absolutely PERFECT climbing tree. I haven't climbed it, yet, as it's only about 20 feet inside one of the main park entrances. But each time I pass I have to fight the temptation.

On the east side of the park there are a number of little buildings that were once residences for the park's gardeners. It must have been a special job - one of the City's gardeners. The little "homes" now serve as storage areas for the modernday gardeners and they remind me of Elton John's Empty Garden (sung in my mind by Speak of the Devil), "He must have been a gardener who cared a lot, who weeded out the tears and grew a good crop."

One other item of interest to me is the little stand just inside "my" entrance to the park. It is an outdoor bookshelf with the sign "Public Library of Madrid," that usually holds only a handful of weather-torn paperback books. Each time I pass I wonder if it was ever full of books. And who leaves the books there? Do people use it? Maybe I should bring some used ones over and see how long they last there...

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Wheel of Fortune

Today, in honor of Gay Pride Day, the Spanish game show Ruleta de la Fortuna had an all-gay theme. The contestants were 3 gay couples and all of the puzzles were related somehow to the gay community - historical events, poets, icons. I think that we can safely say that this is an only-in-Spain event, or perhaps an only-in-Europe. I can't quite imagine Pat Sajak hosting such a show.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Up in Smoke

To celebrate the arrival of summer, Spain was set on fire last night. In small towns all over the country and most famously on the beaches of Alicante, hogueras, or bonfires, were the center of the festivities. We were in Ciempozuelos, a small town south of Madrid, for Nacho’s aunt’s party, when we happened across the town’s celebration. The celebration cannot compare to those on the beaches, but the meaning is the same. They say that if you make a wish as you jump over the bonfire you’re guaranteed your desire. The same is true if you write your wish on a piece of paper and toss it into the flames. That’s quite different from the old saying of something, “going up in smoke.”

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Basic Necessities

Nacho and I went to the bookstore today to find a gift for his aunt. I noticed on the receipt that the IVA, or VAT or sales tax, was only 4% - the "super-reduced" rate reserved for objects of primary necessity. Here they consider the books to be of the same importance as bread and milk. You've got to love that.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A touch of Class?

Over the past couple of days I’ve been confronted twice with the growing “stylishness” of Spain and the definitive interest in catering to the jet-set. For the most part bar service in a “normal” setting is only preferential for regular customers and pretty girls. That must change, however, when there is big money, or big glamour, involved. Note: I must admit that the two experiences I’m about to relate occurred in notably “posh” areas – Palma de Mallorca and Calle Serrano (the most expensive street in Madrid).

While in Palma, Mallorca this past weekend we stopped in at ABACO, a restaurant-bar famous for its luxurious décor, historical building, and fancy-schmancyness. Nacho’s uncle had recommended the place as one where you go if you want to, “pay a lot for the experience.” We didn’t, particularly, but as we were wandering in search of a dinner spot (see post below) we happened past the entrance. Our attention was drawn to it by the crowd of people and the sign boldly proclaiming “No photos.” We decided to step in to see what all the fuss was about. The place is truly beautiful. There is a decadent living-room-type setting (if your living room is the entrance hall to a palace) and then an outdoor courtyard complete with fountain and caged parrots. As one of Nacho’s cousins and I were admiring the birds a waiter walking past said, “Que asco,” How disgusting. I wasn’t certain what he was talking about but when he returned a minute or so later he followed up with, “Idos ya,” Get out of here already. So we did. We didn’t go on vacation to be insulted. We discussed it over dinner and agreed that he probably was sick of people standing around staring at the gilded ceiling and talking to the birds. My take on it is that the bar has an open door policy for admirers. If you don’t want to deal with them go work elsewhere.

Today I met some friends for lunch on Serrano at Wagaboo, a trendy mini-chain of noodle restaurants in Madrid. I had read that they go so far towards being “cool” that they border on rudeness. But I’d also heard that the food was good and cheap and the setting a unique one. We headed over there at about 1:30 and when we approached the host he asked, “Tenéis reserva?” Excuse me? A reservation? For lunch? At 1:30? We clearly didn’t but he managed to find a table for us anyway. The service ended up being pretty good although all of the staff wear headsets to better control the setting. At one point two men in their mid-20s came down the stairs and I heard one of the waiters say into his headset, “Two boys (chicos) are coming down the stairs and they don’t look as though they belong.” I wonder what he said about us… When we left the restaurant had filled up somewhat but there were still plenty of empty tables. I guess some of the people with reservations must have cancelled.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Campeones campeones oe oe oe

Sunday night Real Madrid played for the Spanish Premier League Championship. We watched the game at a bar in Mallorca surrounded by teenagers. Turns out this weekend was also a big one for the "viaje del fin de curso," or the senior trip (taken around both age 16 and age 18). Part of the time we were annoyed by all the kiddies. But they were quite fun to watch the game with. Madrid won after an exciting 8 minutes or so in the 2nd half when they went from losing by one to winning by two. This is the celebration. It might not compare to the 1/2 million people who celebrated at the Cibeles fountain in Madrid but at least no one got hurt or arrested. At least not that we know of.

On an interesting side note - being clearly the only "adults" in the bar we got preferential treatment from the waiter. He was quick to bring us drinks and we are the only ones he brought snacks too (the ever-present plate of olives). And, we found out later, we were the only ones he kept a running tab for. The kiddies paid as they went. A smart move. About 3 minutes after this video was taken the bar was empty - expect for us. It was nice and quiet for our after-game dinner.

A Mallorca voy con mi cancion

I’ve always been amazed by the vast differences in terrain and climate that exist within the boundaries of Spain. Pine trees and palms, mountains and beaches. Mallorca, it turns out, has those same extremes all within its small island.

This weekend Nacho and I headed to the Mediterranean with his cousins and their partners for some sun and relaxation. We went to an all-inclusive hotel in the Arenal beach area – a typical tourist area with wide, beautiful, white sand expanses, a lively boardwalk, chiringuitos (beach-side bars), and lots of Germans. Arenal is about 6 miles from Palma de Mallorca, the capital of the island and the largest city. Our hotel was a respectable 3 stars with a good-sized pool, jacuzzi, lots of bars, and unimpressive food offerings. So Saturday night we decided to go into Palma for dinner and a walk around the city. Hugging the curving line of the bay, Palma is a pretty city with a cozy historical quarter and an impressive duo of hilltop monuments. Sitting next to each other and overlooking the bay are the Palau Almudaina (foreground, a palace started by the Moors [not Moops] in the 13th century and later adopted by the Catholic Kings) and the city’s cathedral (background, one of the world’s largest – started in the 14th century and finally finished by Gaudi in the 20th).

Unfortunately the neighborhood around the monuments is a tourist hub and the service in the bars and restaurants reflected that. (In fact, in addition to its unique terrain, Mallorca has a unique dialect, mallorquín, which is derived from catalan. Most of the signs in the city are, at a minimum, in mallorquín, castellano, and English.) It was clear that a lot of the establishments in the area had adapted themselves to the most prevalent tourist – the northern European (German and English) – and in the process lost a fair amount of their Spanish charm. Perhaps it was a factor of the sheer number of people looking for dinner but even the typical Spanish act of getting a beer at the bar was frowned upon in a couple of the places we visited. When we finally found a good place for dinner (complete with crotchety old Spanish barman) we noticed that, interestingly enough, a majority of the other patrons were also Spaniards. It was a lesson in culture – the floor littered with toothpicks and napkins and the grumpy bartender put off most of the tourists while, for the Spaniards, those same characteristics promised good food and good prices. About 85€ for 6 of us complete with about 10 raciones, drinks, dessert, and coffee at the foot of the cathedral. Not bad at all.

Sunday we rented a car (well, a huge 9-person Mercedes Vito for the 6 of us – extremely comfortable) and headed to the northwest coast of the island. We went in search of the calas – small, secluded beaches – that pepper that coast. We headed on the highway towards the town of Valldemosa passing olive groves as we traversed the interior of the island and then began to climb the hills of the Sierra de Tramontana. We headed to the picturesque town of Deía and its famous cala, stopping along the way at a mirador for a glimpse of the ocean and its characteristic rocky formations. Unless you follow a winding road down to the water’s edge most of the coastline in this area is set on top of sharp cliffs and the views of the ocean below are breathtaking.

The first time around we passed by the handwritten sign directing us down a “road” to Cala Deía. But when we turned back and found it the trip was well worth it. We got to the cala at about 11:30am which was, though we didn’t know it at the time, perfect timing. There were only a handful of people then and the sun was warm but not burning yet. The beach was small and rocky, painful for the feet, but easy on the eyes, and the water was a perfect cool temperature. We stayed for a couple of hours and had our aperitivo (pre-lunch snack) there on the beach. By the time we left the beach was filling with people and the beachside bars were packed.

We continued along the coast to the beachside town of Sóller and its harbor and boardwalk. The town is set around a natural bay and harbor filled with sail boats, colorful houses, and citrus trees, giving it an air of the French Riviera and St. Tropez. There we got lunch and found some shade during the peak of the day. The boardwalk is lined with small cafés and restaurants that overlook the bay and the train tracks of the trolley that parallels the beach. Hugging the cliffs above the beach and the first line of buildings sit multi-million dollar mansions, with flower-covered terraces and hidden entrances.

Refueled from lunch we continued our trek towards the north in search of our final stop – Sa Calobra. We think that means la culebra, or the serpent, and refers to the hair-raising 6 mile road that leads from the mildly less hair-raising highway down to the beach. I found a picture of a portion of the road on Google Earth. What you can’t quite get from the picture is that each switchback and hairpin turn is on the edge of a cliff and the road is only just wide enough for two passing cars (on more than one occasion those two cars being our 9-passenger van and a commercial bus).

The trip down to the beach took about 30 minutes and we passed one minor accident on the decent. The entire way down we kept saying, “This has better be worth it.” It was. The cala at Sa Colobra is smaller than that at Deía but just as rocky. We arrived at about 5pm and, again, had perfect timing, as most of the people had already left for the day. I’ve since read that the beach can be quite touristy with the gift shops and restaurants and daily boat trips in from Sóller, but we escaped all of that and almost had the beach to ourselves. The highlight was a raised concrete dock, designed for the boats, and perfect for a good leap into the water. One of our companions, Peri, was by far the most graceful and I managed to snap this incredible picture.

From Sa Calobra we headed back towards the highway and on to our hotel. Even when you aren’t looking for anything in particular, you follow a curve in the road and come across another incredible sight, like this mountain lake. We snapped a quick shot and then moved on. After all Real Madrid was playing for the championship later that night…

Sunday, June 10, 2007

History lessons

Today we went to lunch at Nacho's parents’ house. We were joined by Nacho's abuela, Brigida, who recently turned 95. At that age you can’t really expect much, but the señorita is lucid and spry as can be. Somehow we got on the topic of the Spanish Civil war and Brigida began to tell stories about her memories from those years. She remembers spending two days in one of the metro stations during a bombing of Madrid and even when the explosions were farther away her house shook from the impact. People fought over food and ate what they could find. With my recent interest in Spanish history it was a fascinating lunch.

When we left their house and headed home we changed buses near the Puerto Toledo. As we strolled down Ronda de Toledo we passed a small park that holds the Chiminea del Gasómetro - the only remaining part of the old gas factory built in the mid 1800's and closed in the late years of the 20th century. This picture doesn't do justice to the impressive height of the tower. With the factory producing coal gas the output of the chimney would have been an ugly smoke. Menos mal that the chimney was tall enough to give the residents below some breathing room. Take note of the graffiti at the base of the chimney. It's a shame. (I went searching on the internet for some additional information about the chimney and the factory. I found it here: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showpost.php?p=7179028&postcount=60. The page is in Spanish but the pictures are interesting and give a better idea of the size of the chimney.)


Friday night I saw the light. Literally. We went out for tapas and drinks with some friends and the first stop was a Basque bar up near Santiago Bernabeu. It was the most well-lit bar I have ever seen in Spain and the food was wonderful. I didn’t have my camera with me so we’ll make due with a shot of the napkin. With so many words on the napkin I’m not 100% sure what the bar’s name is. But I THINK it’s Taberna Algorta and it’s up by Torre España - around Calle de la Reina Mercedes, 25 (metro Santiago Bernabeu).

The bar specializes in pintxos – slices of baquette with a variety of toppings – and they are laid out in glass cases around the bar. My favorite was huevo de cordoniz con txistorra – three fried mini chorizos wrapped in thinly sliced potato and topped with a sunny-side-up quail egg. I also had one with fried bacalao (cod) topped with roasted red peppers. In addition to the pintxos they have some of the best croquetas I’ve ever had. They are incredibly creamy - but not overwhelmingly so - and have a unique flavor. I recommend trying them for sure.

And with such a well-lit bar, you’ll be able to eat with your eyes as well as your mouth.

Also, the bar serves a house red wine that is truly delicious. And it's bottled especially for the restaurant. The label looks just like the napkin and there's no telling where it comes from for sure. But it's by far the best house wine and one of the better red wines I've had.