Thursday, April 30, 2009

Junk in the trunk

Last night I went to a costume shop to pick out a Sevillana dress for our trip down to the Feria de Abril this weekend. As I was trying on one of the dresses and chatting with the salesgirl about whether or not it looked too big, I was suddenly accosted by an abuela shopping for a Spiderman costume for her grandson. I should have known better. These kinds of conversations are an open invitation for butting in by anyone within hearing distance. The woman began pulling on the sides of the dress and then she tells me that the dress will look good if I just take it in a little bit… because, as she so kindly put it, “Your waist is small, but you’ve got a lot back here.” The gall of the abuelas never ceases to amaze me.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Missing Piece

Although I am typically inspired to write by something I’ve seen. this time, I’ve instead been motivated by the lack of something. And not just anything… that commonplace European house fixture that seems so strange and foreign to most Americans… the bidet.

Nacho and I recently moved apartments. Our new apartment has two full bathrooms, both completely redone, and both lacking a bidet. Truth be told, in this day and age a bidet “sobra” (isn’t necessary) in most apartments, but even so most new construction and remodels still feature them. Our current landlord, an architect, clearly felt that it was a waste of space. And I, thankfully, agree. I’d rather have the open space.

But all of this got me thinking… is the missing bidet not somehow symbolic of the blending of cultures that we witness nowadays… the same phenomenon that sees Starbucks and McDonalds in every major city the world over? So I started looking around my apartment for some sign, some indication that what I have is indeed an apartment in Madrid. And I couldn’t find a single thing. It’s almost a kind of “evolution” of homes. Those fixtures which make life more efficient, simpler, more comfortable, are beginning to appear throughout the world and those which are no longer needed are disappearing. The bidet is the vestigial wisdom tooth that no longer serves its purpose while the Crockpot-like cookers popping up in the stores and the automatic coffee makers replacing the moka pot in many homes are those organs which helps us lead a leaner, meaner, faster, "better" life. Slowly but surely, the daily life, from the food we consume to where we live, both on this side of the ocean and on the other side is losing its cultural definition.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bull Sighting

Occasionally, as I go about my daily life, I am suddenly struck by the thought of all the twists and turns my life has taken to get me to that moment in time, that specific spot, this life. Yesterday morning was one such moment.

There I was, heading north through Castilla y Leon en route to a construction site awaiting my watchful presence, when over the horizon rose a giant set of black horns. Then came the head and the hulking body of an enormous black bull. Anyone who has spent much time on the Spanish highways will not be surprised by such an occurrence, but this was my first bull. Not the first I’d seen, but the first I, myself, had driven towards. And for some reason it spoke to me like no other such bull had.

In the few seconds it took for the bull to fully appear on the hillside, the events in the past few years that conspired to bring me to that place – to Spain, to Madrid, to the A-1 freeway north of Madrid, to a solo business trip to a construction site hidden away in the folds of southern Pais Vasco – flashed through my mind. And it overwhelmed me.

The wonderful part is that it thrilled me. I was not struck by a bout of homesickness, nor was I not flooded with nostalgia for Alligator Alley. I was instead exhilarated by the sight of something so Spanish and the thought of how perfectly it fits into the life that I can call mine.

Monday, April 20, 2009

With a Little L

As promised, what follows is a no-holds-barred rundown of this morning’s practical driving exam.


Are you ready?




Ok, here goes. It wasn’t that bad. Seriously. It was amazingly similar to the driving test I took 13 ½ years ago on my 16th birthday. Change the diesel-powered, stick shift Seat Ibiza from this morning to the gasoline-chugging, automatic Buick LeSabre from 1995, add in a couple of roundabouts, and the test was literally the same. And, when you come to think about it, why should it even be any different? Barring, perhaps the idiosyncrasies of driving in the UK, in general, driving is driving, isn’t it? Turn signals, yielding to oncoming traffic, and parallel parking are the same the world over. The language is not even really an impediment.

Why then, the night-and-day difference between DMV of the States and the DGT of Spain?
Why was I, an experienced driver, shaking like a leaf as I climbed into the driver’s seat this morning??

It all comes down to perception. The Spanish DGT has set the price – both financial and mental - of getting your driver’s license at an exorbitantly high level. All in all I’ve probably spent 400€ getting my license. And that was doing everything the first time around, in the shortest period of time possible, and with 13 years of driving experience. One of the girls who also took the exam today told me she’s spent nearly 3,000€ getting to the same point. 3,000€. Mind you, that’s roughly 3 times the average monthly salary in Madrid. In setting such a high price for the license, people’s nerves get the best of them. They expect something infinitely more difficult than the reality, and in doing so, subject themselves to dozens of driving classes at 30€ a pop. When they finally get up the nerves to take the exam, they think of the hundreds of Euros already invested in that moment and the horror stories they’ve heard up until then and how on earth they are going to ask their boss for aNOTHer day off work. So many people take the exam expecting to fail. So they do. And then repeat the whole cycle again.

The drivers in the States are no less prepared. They are, in general, simply less freaked out. It’s $15 after all. You fail? You go back the next day and retest for another $15. And in most cases, you have learned the great bulk of your driving skills either through the Drivers’ Ed classes in high school or from your parents by way of a learner’s permit, not by pumping hundreds of dollars into private classes. Simply put, the Spanish DGT and its spawn, the driving schools, are a money-making machine that simply does not have an equal in the States. Their mere existence and the sheer way they go about carrying out their business is what makes their way-of-life possible. It is, indeed, a cycle that is not likely to change ever. Like so many things in Spain, it is done this way because it is done this way. A fresh crop of drivers comes through. They complain about the mafia-like mentality of the test-givers and the unfair, subjective, ranking scale used to pass the exams. But when they finally pass they are so happy to be through with it all that they push it out of their heads and move on instead of continuing to protest against such a system.

And mind you, it’s one thing if the perpetual test-taker is saying such things. I, however, passed.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Food for thought

People here in Spain often ask about typical American food. Is it really the hamburger? I usually answer that the best “American” food is regional, not national. I was “home” a few weeks ago and had a long list of must-eat foods. Among the everyday eats such as bagels, Mike-n-Ikes and goldfish crackers, were Chicago-style pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs as well as St. Louis’ traditional toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake.

In light of that trip, and the resulting 5 pounds I am trying to lose, I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately.

Spain in general is an utter treasure-trove of delicious eats, but I’ve come to the realization that when it comes to typical local cuisine, Madrid got the short end of the stick. Granted it’s a matter of opinion – which regional dish is the tastiest – but I’m willing to bet that one of Madrid’s oldest and most famous, callos a la madrileña, is not a fan favorite. After all, how can stewed cow guts and noses compare with Valencia’s paella or Andalucía’s gazpacho? They can’t, which is probably why said dish hasn’t triumphed all that much outside of Spain. You’d be hard pressed to find it on the menu of any Spanish restaurant back in the States, and I have yet to have a friend or family member visit us who is willing to try it.

That being said, there are obviously plenty of Spaniards more than willing to slurp up the stew, and it is commonly included in the offerings of the menu del día during the winter months. Although, I have noticed that the closer you get to the Plaza Mayor the less likely you are to find it. Tourists, after all, frequently rely on the pictures to chose what to eat, and let’s admit it, callos are simply not that photogenic.

Friday, April 10, 2009

There's no place like home.

This flyer for a neighborhood Walmart-like store recently appeared in our mailbox. I was flipping through the pages checking out the new spring plants when my attention was distracted by the pages offering products to “make you feel at home.” Stores everywhere are pulling out the stops to get customers in the door and buying: 3x2 sales, free financing, free add-ons, etc. But this is the first marketing I’ve seen directed specifically at the immigrant population. “Come buy at our store. We sell all of the products straight from your home country.” Oh, and we’ll throw your flags into the ad, too, to pull at the heart strings a little. So, what’s being offered?

Plantain chips and canned mackeral in tomato sauce from Ecuador, pickled vegetables from Romania, black and green tea and canned tuna with peas and tomatoes from Morroco, sugarloaf and pony beer from Colombia, sauerkraut and pickles from Poland, and chimichurri and yerba mate from Argentina.

Quite the diverse offering and also quite representative of the specific imnmigrant communities in the area. It got me to thinking, though. What would make ME feel at home? It’s safe to say that the first store in Madrid to offer bagels, Boca burgers, Diet Mountain Dew, and sour cream would get all of my business.