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.