Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock


December 8, 2014

The 30 Days of Christmas – Gluttony in Times of Need

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The Puente de Diciembre is a time for planning. Planning everything you have to do for the next five weeks, and survive.

     Got my long-distance Christmas cards out a week before for the first time in years. I did that right after throwing last year’s cards which I just happened upon underneath a pile of books and realized I had never sent out.

       Presents are on the way. I haven’t bought one, but they are on the way.

      But what I’m really concerned about is making sure I have all of my Christmas meals in order before they start, which is tomorrow. The take up a large part of any Madrid resident’s social life and budget, and now that everyone pretends the crisis is over for some reason, spirits are high. Unemployment is dipping below 25% (don’t worry, it never was that high to begin with, especially if remove the 18-25 year-old labor force, which never worked that much anyway) and word from abroad is that everyone is slowly pulling out of hole. The government is even going to return 25% of the 7.2% of my salary it took away from all teachers two years ago. Without interest, of course.
That’s why it is especially important to sort things out eating-wise. Here’s what I have line up so far:
Dec. 9 – Dinner with my gastronomic club
Dec. 12 – Dinner with other teachers
Dec. 16 – Dinner with the school teachers from the language school
Dec. 19 – Lunch with the entire school
Dec. 20 – Christmas party with the gastronomic club
Dec. 21 – Christmas dinner with friends
Dec. 24 – Christmas aperitivo with the gastronomic club
Dec. 24 – Christmas Eve dinner with my Spanish family
Dec. 25 – Christmas Day lunch with my other half’s family
Dec. 31 – New Year’s Eve Dinner with the other half’s family, if I behaved myself the first time.
Jan 1 – New Year’s Day lunch with my Spanish family, if I have behaved myself at Christmas
Jan 5 – Three Kings (The Twelfth Night) cocktail party
Jan 5 – Three Kings (The Twelfth Night) dinner
Jan 6 – Three Kings Day lunch
* Any last-minute celebrations have yet to appear on the agenda.

     On a number of accounts, this was cause for worry, not the least being my health. But this was Christmas in Spain, and years of training had made me a hardened veteran. A new war was about to be waged.


December 7, 2014

Christmas 2014 – All’s Well That Ends Well

It’s pretty incredible just how quickly we put bad memories behind us.  When we want to.  When we can.

     Just yesterday I was on my way to meet up with some writers for a drink, because that is what you do with writers, because that is what writers do.  It was a fairly simple procedure in a non-complicated nook in the city, but in a generally lively part of town.  I like to walk just about everywhere I go in Madrid, because traveling any other way makes me think ill of mankind and wish ill things upon its members.  But I was supposed to meet up at 6:00p.m. and was walking out the door at 6:30 and that meant I needed to make an effort not to be too late.  I plotted out my plan and opted for the metro which meant going up one stop to Príncipe de Vergara, switching onto the Red Line, woefully called by contract the Vodafone Line 2, which takes you by the metro station, the Vodafone Sol.  Vodafone is making a concerted and expensive effort to remind me why I will never buy its products, if at all possible.

    Now, to provide you with some perspective, this weekend is known as the Puente de Diciembre, which is a two-holiday extravanganza which, depending on the year, can turn into a 5-day stretch of no work.  The days off are December 6, Constitution Day, which honors one of the least respected and defended documents in the land, and December 8 is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which most Americans confuse with a miraculous football catch from the 1970s.

     It’s also one of the busiest weekends in Madrid because hordes of Spaniards from around the country come to the capital to enjoy the bright and cheery yuletide atmosphere, something which had dimmed somewhat in recent years.  While this sounds like a terrific idea from a visitors standpoint, this excitement quickly wanes when they realize that some 200,000 people from all over have come up with the same idea.

      This would not bother me otherwise, I try to step away from the misfortune of foolish others at this time of year, were it not for the fact that when I need to get anywhere that comes within a two-mile radius of the heart of Madrid, life becomes unbearable.

      I had forgotten about this tiny point until I got off at the Príncipe de Vergara station and noticed that about three hundred other public transportation users planning on doing the same, as if it were 8:30 in the morning and we were on our way to work.  At other times of the year, moving around the city at that hour be a harm.  But we weren’t, and I found this terribly disturbing.

       I skipped to the front of the line the way people can in this city, feeling guiltless about my stealthy conduct and relieved to leave scores of people behind, reached the topped of the escalator and, to my shock, ran into an equally massive group of transiters of all ages racing towards us as if they were being pursued by a pride of lions.  We met in the center, like two tributaries, and turned down another corridor to form one gigantic river of people eager to get to the sea of holiday sightseers around the Plaza Mayor.  I came to the conclusion that not a single household in the city was being occupied.

      The only difference was, I had no intention of joining them, had no choice but to go along with them because my stop was beyond the Vodafone Sol, the only underground station whose name has been legally usurped by a telecommunications company, or any company come to think of it.  All I had to do was survive four stops and everything would be better.

       I reached the Line 4 platform and hoped to get on before the rest could catch up, but quite possibly some divine force was punshing me for being such a cheeky bastard because the train came, opened up for a few seconds, was so filled it admitted no passengers, closed its doors again and departed quietly.  The next was four minutes, and that was more than ample time for the rest of the travelers to reach the platform.  It felt like New Year’s Eve.

        I honestly considered calling it quits because I couldn’t imagine any of us finding the space to get on the next subway, nor was I in the mood for pushing my way on, the way they apparently do on those Japanese trains.  But that wat precisely what everyone else around me had in mind.  So, when the underground train pulled in and we could see the look of utter shock on the faces of the people inside, one thing was clear, it was every man for himself.

        In fact, there was more room inside.  It was just that no one wanted to give because they were afriad they might be unable to get off when it was their turn.  Five hundred people on the outside made them change their mind.  Miracle of all miracles, we did fit.   The train groaned all the way, but it finally pulled into Vodafone Sol, and 90% of the passengers alighted.  Upstairs, more of the same awaited them.

       The crisis was over.  I carried on for another four stations to San Bernardo, got off, walked a few blocks down Manuela de Malasaña street to a craft beer bar to have a drink with some writers, which is what you do when are with writers.  Which is what you do.  The crisis must be over.

          We agreed the crisis was not over but that Spaniards now believe it has, most likely out of necessity.  Then we talked about Cleveland and forgot about everything.


November 11, 2014

The Consulta

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Well, it’s come and gone, and I can’t quite say where it’ll go from here.  It seems like little was settled, as both sides will not budge when it comes to admitting victory or defeat.  If anything, it’ll go on…and on…and on.

     Yesterday, Sunday, November 9, the Catalonians held a straw poll, which is a kind of makeshift unofficial referendum on whether or not the majority from the region wants to become independent, as the minority from the region have so arduously desired.  It was an act of defiance since the national government and the judicial branch had previously struck down Catalonia’s request to call on the will of the people to determine its future.  The hope to become a sovereign nation has been alive for decades, and the roots go back centuries, not unlike Scotland’s dilemma, but it has come on stronger over the past decade for reasons not easily summarized in so few lines.  Now those wanting to break away feel they have the right numbers to put it to the people, but Madrid keeps saying, “Uh, I don’t see this referendum thing happening.”

     While it’s understandable that the national government should want to put off the inevitable, the problem is it only aggravates the issue and it doesn’t make Spain look very good.  The United Kingdom established a peaceful and orderly referendum with the Scots, as did Canada with Quebec, to nationalist movements which failed, by the way.  Why can’t Spain do the same.

     So the pro-independence groups organized its now famous “consulta” and beckoned Catalans from home and abroad to put in their two cents.  The answers were short and sweet: “Yes” or “No”.  They did so in the name of democracy, calling it a show of civil disobedience for a just cause.  They even alluded to Martin Luther King Jr.  The national government called it a sham.

     Finally the numbers came in, with some 2,300,000 voters showing up at the polls, with about 80% demanding independence.  The international press has embraced these numbers as indicative of Catalonia’s overwhelming support for the initiative, but the stats belie reality.  The numbers that showed up only constituted about 35% of all potential voters, and if you remove the nay-sayers, then the independentistas only managed to muster up about 28% of the vote.

    If you take into account that the straw poll was promoted heavily by the Catalonian independence movement and it was supposed to their chance to corner the Madrid government into giving up more control to them, in my humble opinion, it didn’t do a very good job.  About two-thirds of the voters clearly didn’t see the necessity to cast a vote, and would have expected a higher turnout from those citizens if they were so adament about seeing secession through.  In short, from what I can tell, the numbers are there. I think they are higher then 28%, but probably still a far cry from the needed 51%.

    If the Spanish government had any skill with this issue, they would hold a real referendum as soon as possible, while they apparently have the vote on their side.  But I don’t see that happening either.

    Oh well.  Time to start the week.

Images of Spain,Uncategorized

August 1, 2014

Images of Spain: Street Advertising

DSC_0044 Never has the term been so aptly employed.  I saw this the other day outside one of Spain’s employment offices, known as INEM here.  Fortunately, I wasn’t there as a client, so to speak, English teachers have remained relatively unscathed by one of the worst economic recessions in history, but rather to accompany a friend who was arranging to receive his first unemployment benefit.  It’s a perversely cruel word that is, “benefit”, as if it were a kind of perk you get for being on the dole.  There is little to nothing beneficial about it.

      In any event, you are no longer able to just show up at the INEM and get a ticket to stand in line.  Now you must make an appointment online.  They zap back a very exact time, like 12:47, and then tack on the symbols +/- afterward to indicate, “more or less”.   That’s what I like: approximate precision.

     On the way in, I saw this little bit of publicity stamped on the surface of the sidewalk.  In English, it reads, “Men’s Haircuts, free if you are unemployed”.

      Was this generosity, solidarity, cynicism, politics, opportunism?

     Chances are, it’s genuine.  There’s a phone number and everything.  Other hairdressers and barbers around Spain, from Tarragona and Lugo to Ibiza have offered the same over the years to help out those who are living on very limited budgets.  That’s called the benefit of kindness.

      Meanwhile, as the number of unemployed descended 310,400 in the second term this year and Spain is the fastest growing employment nation in the EU, the official rate remains stubbornly at 24.47%, the second highest in the union.  Believe it or not, things do appear to be improving; which is maybe why that sign is beginning to look a little faded.

Images of Spain

July 29, 2014

Images of Spain: The air conditioner

DSCN0915I was away in the States for over a month and the sad thing was I didn’t even have a chance to write about a thing, though there was plenty to write about, I can assure you.  There always is.  About everything.  Everything about.

  What a shame when you don’t even have a chance to sit back and jot down a few words.  Forget the photos.  Now people just take millions of them and let the retro filters and cropping do the rest.  A man once said that if you want to travel, first you must learn to draw, because when you learn to draw, you learn to observe, and when you know how to observe, you are ready for traveling.

       Lately, I haven’t feel I was ready for anything but collapse at the end of the day, and that’s not what I call a demanding skill.

      Back in Spain, the summer is going through its motions.  They tell me it was a pretty good July for the first couple of weeks, then the heat bore down and now it probably won’t let up much for the next six weeks or so.  Maybe longer.  That’s the way it works here.  Though if there is a bright side, it probably has to do with the dry air that reigns in these parts of the country.  In New England, the humidity can get so god-awful, even 80º F can feel like you are wearing two sweaters.

      Today in Madrid we got a bit of a break.  It’s only 87ºF; they call it pleasant with plenty of sun.

       It was pleasant until about an hour ago, then I decided to revert to my newest and closest friend at home, my A.C.   It’s actually been a fixture in my apartment for over three years.  It never worked, and I never bothered to have it fixed, until last summer when I said enough was a enough.  The thing was, summer was coming to an end, so I decided to wait until this May.

      In America, this appliance, I guess that is what we should call it, has long been commonplace in most homes.  And they aren’t used sparingly.  In public places like grocery stores, it can get so icy that I need to wear a sweatshirt or else an impending bowel movement will invade me somewhere around the cereal section.  I never knew why this was, and to my surprise, nor do many professionals.  “Why do I want to defecate in a cold super market?” does not get as many results on the search engine as I had envisioned.  I can’t say what number I had in mind, but I’m sure it is more than one.  Apparently my colonic muscles are stimulated by the chilly air in an action called peristalsis, when your intestinal muscles relax and contract in a way that says it’s time to make for the bathroom.  It’s the cool air that triggers that.  I began to feel that this reaction was more a personal thing, but I’m sure that it’s something people are just too embarrassed to mention.

       That said, in Spain, air conditioning in a private home was long considered a luxury and eschewed by many who felt it was unhealthy.  By many who smoked and drank regularly, and did little or no exercise.  By many who popped antibiotics at the sound of the first sneeze and nourished themselves on fatty pork meat.

     Now it is more common, but hardly rampant.  In 2008, approximately 35% of Spanish homes enjoyed artificial cooling, and though it is surely higher these days, it’s a far cry from what you get on the other side of the Atlantic. In 2011, in the United States, it was estimated that 87% of households have this now basic feature.

        So this is actually a fairly recent image of Spain.  A Spain of the last ten years, I’d say.  It’s not an image of progress, but rather one of acceptance.


May 1, 2014

Dorset: North of Spain 10

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Gold_Hill,_Shaftsbury,_Dorset,_EnglandThe logical thing to do when returning is to take the same route from whence we came, just to avoid any unpleasant surprises.  This is especially true when you are traveling with kids, because they generally don’t appreciate hearing sentences like, “Let me just pull over a second and ask this man where we are.”

So, I should have done that, but didn’t.  I much prefer to go back on an alternate route, just to discover something new.  We did; and that was, getting lost in England is easy.  Finding your way back is not.

We veered onto the A330 and headed west towards Exeter, generally in the direction of Cornwall.  According to my calculations, I would only have to do this for a dozen miles.  I was looking for a crossroads that would indicate a turn south towards Dorchester.  This never came.  It never came because a majority on the panel of experts of the British Road Network felt that kind of information was superfluous, and that mentioning the location of smaller, vastly less important towns was far worthier of mention on a sign than lowly and forgotten Dorchester.  So I bypassed my exit at a considerable speed, positive that the route I was looking for was still ahead.  After another ten miles of stellar summer English countryside, the very landscapes that inspired Thomas Hardy over and over again, I realized that if I didn’t do anything about it I would eventually send our vehicle off a cliff into the Atlantic.   

                So, I raced off the highway and onto a country road that headed south and hopefully towards a familiar name.  The route was so narrow that it allowed for just enough room two vehicles as long as neither of them exceeded the width of a mini.   Something must be said for these harrowing experiences, but I usually pay for them at a theme park and with the guarantee I won’t die as a result.

                We coasted into Shaftesbury, an ancient town whose earliest buildings have all but disappeared from existence.  Little has survived from before the 18th Century, making it on paper the kind of town which no one in England would give two hoots about.  The name Shaftesbury may not be familiar to most us from abroad, yet anyone who has spent more than five minutes in a bookstore or souvenir shop in Dorset will have undoubtedly come upon its famous Gold Hill, an extremely steep cobbled street lined by traditional thatched-roofed stone houses.   It must be the most common photographic image of Dorset.  The lane is also famous for being the setting for one of Britain’s most beloved commercials of all time, promoting Hovis Bread.  It was filmed and launched back in 1972 and directed by none other than a young and then unknown Ridley Scott.  The ad shows a boy pushing his bike up the hill with a degree of difficulty to deliver loaves to a neighbor and final customer of the day, who lives at the very top.  Reaching the summit is described as being “on top of the world” in the voice-overed mind of the child.  The impression is understandable.   Beyond the roofs and chimneys, the English countryside explodes in all directions.  I know this from the picture, of course, just as anyone who has been to Dorset has.

The commercial is quaint, twee and heartwarming, but I was initially puzzled by its lasting fame.   After a few viewings I began to understand and came to the conclusion that it was one of those otherwise insignificant cultural nuggets which for some reason appear at the right time in a society and become lodged permanently in the memories of a whole generation.  Or two.  Every country has its treasure trove of peculiar icons that seem to mean something only to its residents.  They are brief and modest rebellions against globalization.

The Hovis bread commercial is said to have been a hit because it depicted the essence of rural life in England, with a heavy dose of nostalgia to boot.  It is fitting they would choose this spot to film it.  Dorset still possesses that yesteryear allure that attracts the British tourist in search of that lost and forgotten past of a fondly recalled simpler life.  It was become a kind of generic Main Street for the nostalgic.  At least, that’s the sense I get. I didn’t know Gold Hill was there, though I had seen the picture already.  That is a blunder in advertising.  People didn’t associate it with any town in particular. 

I was focused on other things, in reality; on what street would take me back to Weymouth and was just happy to see a traffic light because it meant I was in civilization and able to get a better understanding of just how far off course I had gone.  Fully confident of my orientation skills but no longer sure of the way I worked them, I fled to a gas station and sought the assistance of the first person I came across, who happened to be a young man of about 20.  He was with his mates.  He had a slightly unkept, up-to-no-good look, the kind of kid I certainly would have avoided back in the States, now that I think about it, unless I wanted to end up on one of those reality shows about “Unsolved Mysteries”. 

But the funny thing about the British, from an American’s point of view, is that no matter what their appearance may be, it’s the goddamn accent of theirs that makes them somehow so appealing and worthy of the fullest trust.  They could be holding to your throat and telling you that they are going to take all your money but first sodomize you for an hour, and just because of that charming intonation of theirs, you’d find yourself saying, “Hey, that sounds just fine by me.”

 Now, I can’t say what this kid would be like when the pubs close, but he was surely helpful then.  He kindly explained that I was heading in the right the direction and that I was to first pass through Blandford Forum, where I would see signs for Dorchester, i.e., the capital of the county.  Blandford is only about from 15 miles from Dorchester, but to my surprise, the disoriented traveler would not be provided with irrefutable proof that he was not lost until he was practically at the edge of town.  Oh well; every country has its quirks.

                The trip back was taking longer than I had anticipated, but as we struggled to orient ourselves, we did get to enjoy the back roads of rural England.  The tree-lined lanes, the thick hedges, the green and golden fields that formed the most attractive patchwork nature and man could jointly produce.  Each turn afforded yet another bucolic and ideal setting for yet another Hardy novel.  We wove through hill and dale until we glided into a town called Iwerne Minster, which had been was commended in the 2010 for its charm in the Best Kept Villages in Dorset contest, an annual competition run by the Dorset Community Action.  This was no gratuitous distinction.  All it takes is for a quick look around the countryside for you to realize that the competition is stiff.  Just about any hamlet in those parts could out-quaint the vast majority of Spanish communities.  They are just that cute.  You could almost imagine Mrs. Tiggy-winkle emerging from any of those homes to sweep the front entrance with a nice thick broom full of long bristles.

Iwerne Minster had apparently stood above the rest in this category making me wonder just what it would be like to inhabit like that.  It seemed almost unthinkable that a dog could ever poop on its sidewalks; no drunk would puke in its bushes; no lewd sex act ever performed or heinous crime committed inside the walls of its homes.  I was sure no habitual human behavior went on in there.  Ever.

It was while traversing this town that we drove by a pub called the “Wild Garlic”, which I pointed out to the girls because I loved the name.  Little did I know that it was a recently started up restaurant and B&B run by a Masterchef winner Mat Follas, a British celebrity I had never heard of before.  It had apparently been opened just a few months before, and apparently was closed down just a few months since then.  This was a town for hedgehogs and bears donning rain gear, not gastronomic sybarites.   Didn’t Mr. Follas realize that?

We carved our way through the rest of the county and, without great difficulty but a great deal of patience, managed to return to Weymouth with a sense that he had finally made it to familiar surroundings.  The roundabouts.  The port with the scores of masts rising into the sky, the families coming back from their dinners at restaurants.  The day coming to an end, and the town coming to a close.  It comforted us.  After just three days, Weymouth had become our new home. 

Images of Spain

April 26, 2014

Great Spanish Traditions: Driving home at the end of Easter break

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Semana SantaMany people back home ask me how I spend my Easter Sunday and I always tell them the same: In a car, on a highway and with a handful of swear words on hand and a head full of ways I would like to commit violent acts.

     It’s a reasonable enquiry considering Spain has a big reputation for being such a deeply religious country, with KKK-like brotherhoods parading about scores of towns and cities toting floats depicting anguished images from the passion of Christ.  But that occurs days before when everyone commiserates with the suffering of the Savior on the eve of his crucifixion.  The part about his coming back to life, the happy-ending resurrection, that triumphant “Hey, he really is the Son of God after all”, is overshadowed by the fear of running into one of the worst traveling days of the calendar.  It’s a kind of Sunday after Thanksgiving to the tenth power.

     There was a couple of years there when I took time away from this activity and stayed in Madrid, time off to recover from repeated ordeals.  But I finally returned to one of Spain’s greatest traditions: Operación Retorno.  The photo actually shows traffic heading in the opposite the direction, towards the feared Alicante, but the sense of helplessness it conveys is virtually the same on the way back. 

     There is really nothing complicated about experiencing this great custom.  Just spend a weekend about 500 kilometers away, pack your car, get behind the wheel, and head for the nearest highway that takes you back to Madrid.  Then you look for the first traffic jam you can find, pull up at the end of the line and participate. 

      In the past, returning from a coastal place like Alicante meant the backup usually started a few yards from where my car was parked, some 350 miles from Madrid.  It could go on for days.  But this time I was regressing from the north, and that made things slightly more tolerable.  The electronic panels spanning the road informed the traveler of any impending doom, and on this occasion indicated that we could expect “slow traffic”, which I took as a good sign since it suggested we would be home in two hours instead of the usual four or five it might normally take.  The traffic adopted the classic worm effect, crunching and stretching out throughout the countryside of Madrid.  Every kilometer we advance counted as victory toward a common goal: reaching Fort Living Room before insanity set in. 

      To say you returned to Madrid on Easter Sunday without considering homicide is a true indicator of just how involved you are in life here.  It’s a necessary part of your training in Spanish culture.  It’s like mastering the subjunctive mode in Spanish, or watching from beginning to the final credits of the Eurovision song contest.  No one wants to go through with it, and yet everyone should. 


April 21, 2014

Madrid, Mon Amour

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I woke this morning to the sound a misty rain blanketing the sky.  What a relief!  Well, for once we had a Semana Santa without having to pull out the umbrellas every day, and the procession floats didn’t have to kick it into high gear to get back to the church.  En abril, aguas mil (In April, a thousand waters), that’s the saying, the distant relative to “April showers bring May flowers”, though “hasta el 40 de mayo, no te quites el sayo” (Until the 40th of May, don’t take off your raincoat) hints that the wet weather might be around for a while…and often is.  We got a break this time, we really did.  All week they had been forecasting that damper cooler weather would be moving into the country and ruining the fun for everyone, but for the most part it just kept getting pushed off and off until about midnight last night, when I came out of the Círculo de Bellas Artes movie theater and felt the sprinkling begin.  Bellas Artes is one of the oldest cultural centers in Madrid.  It also owns a grandiose old world café with an outdoor section that spills out onto the Calle Alcalá.  The inside, is all marbly and might be something you would see in those old fancy hotels.  The rest of the building offers small but generally interesting art & photography exhibits, conference rooms, a large ballroom, etc., but the real reason most people come these days is for the chic rooftop bar, which was once just a rooftop, which was once only a rooftop with lookout of the center of Madrid, but now is a happening place for the hip, and not so hip, because I go there from time to time, taking that quality down a notch.  Prices are up there with the height of the building, but nothing out of this world, especially for anyone who has travelled to London, Paris or New York.

On this occasion, I was at the movie theater (there is also a regular theater), which I hit from time to time because they usually have decent film cycles featuring different directors or actors or even themes.  The best thing about it is that the same movie usually has three or four showings, unlike the filmoteca, meaning you don’t normally have to hipcheck some college professor in line to ensure you have a ticket.  This month they were featuring the late French director Alain Resnais, who just passed away last month.  It was Hiroshima, Mon Amour, his classic innovative film about, love, loss and memory.  It wasn’t the easiest film to watch, one of the densest 90 minutes of celluloid I have taken in for some time which drags a little, and probably not for everyone, but an intensively beautiful and provocative film, all the same.

Let’s not forget these places in Madrid.  Let’s not forget love.  Let’s remember we have memories which teach us to forget.

North of Spain

March 14, 2014

Dorset: North of Spain. 8

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1375282168433We visited a souvenir shop on the way out, picked out a few postcards we ended up not ever sending, snacked on a soft ice cream cone and then plotted out the next couple of hours.  We walked down the pretty streets of Salisbury thinking of where and what to eat.  As I salivated as we went by every pub, my daughters suggested Burger King, and since we had made it through the cathedral with my being beheaded, and the Stonehengey-thing still looming, I thought it was a good moment to compromise and allow them to perk up their spirits with some crappy food.

                It did the trick.  With kids happy and ready for the second half of the day, we explored the town a little more.  Salisbury was certainly attractive and pleasant to visit, but perhaps because I was used to medieval heavyweights back in Spain like Toledo, Segovia or Santiago de Compostela, I have to admit I felt a little letdown.  I know it’s not a fair judgment since the two countries have such contrasting appearances, but I can’t help thinking I was expecting more.  Oh well, the section around the cathedral was truly awesome.

                We went back to the car and headed for the big challenge of the day: the blocks of rocks. 

                I have to confide that, on one hand, I was very excited about seeing Stonehenge but at the same time terrified of what I would find.  I had heard that it had been cut off from the public and only could be viewed from a distance; and that the crowds, oh the crowds, rivaled 5th Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day.  What kind of cultural experience would I end up impressing on my daughters?  Reverting to my teaching techniques, I kept expectations as low as possible to avoid excessive disappointment in the end, and relied heavily on the long-term effects to visit would have.

                “I know you may not find this enthralling, but, trust, ten years down the road, you’ll be thanking me for it.”  A decade was a very comfortable margin to snatch a victory from defeat.  And, if worst came to worst, at least time would heal that wound.  But I had lived similar experiences when I was there age, and even I can tell you that I have come to appreciate such bizarre tidbits of knowledge, like declining Latin words, years after considering homicide when having to study them by force.   Learning can be such an odd process.

                We departed Salisbury and, after bumping up on my first curb of the trip, a space judgment flaw that afflicts people used to driving on the other side of the road, we coasted north to the final destination of our day. 

Stonehenge is located on the famous Salisbury Plain a 300 square mile stretch of open land which has served as the backdrop of many literary tales.  Aside from that, it turns out to be a real task trying to ascertain just exactly where the Neolithic monument par excellence is and what or whom it belongs to.  Research is no good.  If anything, it serves to distance you from the truth.

It appears that Stonehenge is nearby a few different towns, but not technically within the boundaries of any.  A kind of no man’s land.  From my understanding, it is owned by The Crown, which suggests the royal family could pop down there at any time and munch on some cucumber sandwiches while reclining on the blue stones, but in reality it refers to everything that embodies the government (executive, judicial and legislative) of the United Kingdom.  In a sense, everything but the monarchy per se, if I have got it right.   So, the monument is owned by the country, and managed by the English Heritage, which takes care of many of England’s most cherished historical sites.  The surrounding land, some 2,000 acres in all, is maintained by yet another conservationist body, the National Trust, which I used to think ran the show when it came to England’s heritage, but apparently it’s not that easy. 

We glided up a long straightaway, leaving soon-to-be new visitors’ center to our right and, once on top, made for the makeshift parking lot in what otherwise would be a meadow for sheep. The English Heritage prides itself in making dozens of its properties available to the public for free, but it certainly finds a way of making up for the difference in heavyweights like Stonehenge.  Entry costs something like 14 pounds, 9 if you are a child.  Then you have a 5 quid fee for parking – unless you were a member of the Heritage or a ticket-holder, neither of which applied to us.  You’d think that since they would be having me fork over a handsome sum to see the rocks on the Salisbury Plain, the least they could do was foot the bill for the parking lot. 

                Enough of the complaining.  Despite my fears of masses of multitudes turning the afternoon into something like the New York State Highway on the weekend of Woodstock, to my surprise, the visit, while hardly intimate, was manageable.  I was just reeling to get inside.  Considering it was early August, it could have been worse. 

It was also one of the most international moments of our visit to England that year.  Down in Dorset, a foreigner is a Liverpudlian whose mother is from Glasgow.  At Stonehenge, English is just one of the dozens of languages filling the air.

                The visit takes you through a short subterranean exhibit with murals that prep you for the big moment.  Since the big moment was all that I was there for, we passed through rather blithely and headed for the ramp. 

There is certainly something liberating about emerging from the time tunnel they guide you through and rising up to the open plain with the family of ancient and noble stones cracking the horizon.  The vastness of the open area muted the magnitude of the people speaking there.   Stonehenge is hands down the most famous prehistoric site in the West, and to say you’ve been that close to it, sends a chill up your spine regardless of the multitude surrounding the circle.  Say what you will, but I didn’t see it as a letdown.

My daughters feigned disinterest at first, claiming that every child under the age of fifteen there was complaining as much as them.  “I just heard a boy saying how boring it was.”

                “He was speaking German.  How would you know?”

                “You can tell.”

                “You can, can you?”


           There is little mysterious about how to visit the site.  You start at one point, something like one o’clock, and go counter clockwise for a full loop until you have observed it from 360 different angles.  It may seem simplistic to say, but I can tell you that the changing perspectives are worth it.  The weather was typically English fickle climate.  The balmy and mostly cloudy skies allowed for persistent changes of light and depth. Not sure if I would ever return, I went for another around, doing my best to tune out the crowds.

        The girls ended up loving it; I knew they would.  After looping around slowly, we sat down on the grassy prairie, pulled out a couple of packs of Walker’s crisps, or chips, as the Americans would say, and gazed at the timeless structure endlessly, the way you do when bewitched by the dancing flames in a fireplace. 

         The girls enjoyed it, I tell you.  And I no longer had to tell them “Ten years from now.  Ten years from now.”  Two thousand years ago had suddenly become now.  Ten years into the future had turned into now.  Now was all of time encapsulated, beneath the expanse of a bone-white sky and in a silence only broken by distant windy voices and the crunching of brittle chips.  Or crisps, as the British say.

Images of Spain

February 28, 2014

IMAGES OF SPAIN: The “telefonillo”

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DSC_0069First of all, just coming up with an acceptable equivalent in English seems to be a challenge for translators around the world.  Go to, a well-intended but often errant translating reference service which, instead of computing the word or phrase that you are looking for into another tongue, provides you with a series of previous attempts done by other human translators who have contributed their texts.  It is an interesting approach because it can assist you in finding that elusive linguistic transformation you seek, but on more than one occasion, it helps you realize that there are a lot of incompetent experts out there, and reaffirms yourn faith in technology.    

        Here are some of the jewels the unwary investigator might get duped by:  “entryphone telephone” (which is more of a definition than a translation); “little phone” (a half-hearted literal translation, especially since there little “little” about it); “telephone/monitor” (this time a physical description of the modern models); “portable phone” (there is hardly anything portable about this fixed fixture – your 50kg washing machine is easier to remove); and finally “intercom” (which probably stands as the closest relation). 

         Coming from residential Greenwich, Connecticut, I didn’t encounter a telefonillo at all in my youth, aside from a friend’s house which was so big one was used to communicate between members of the family.   Ironically, one of the few homes I know in that town which actually use one of those systems from the outside gate is my original house, which breaks my heart.  It was sadly transformed from a home which was so open that every living creature around for miles, children, dogs and cats, felt free to trespass as they pleased, to a kind of cold and uncharacteristic fortress of sorts. Alas!  These things happen I guess. 

         You just never saw one, even on TV.  From the movies I watched, I thought that in New York you either had a doorman do the screening, or lived in one of those neighborhoods where people shouted from the street, “Hey Tony!  You home?!”

         The telefonillo is a ubiquitous feature of every flat and many independent houses, and in my opinion is that their charm resides in two features: their apparent poor manufacturing and their sketchy reliability. 

         The first is apparent from the minute you hold the receiver in your hand.  So light and airy, it seems to be hollow, and you are tempted to pry it open on one side to check if there is anything inside keeping things in order.

         I suppose appearances could be deceiving if it weren’t for the fact that so many of these specimens end up working about as pitifully as you would expect them to.  Such is the case, that for the most part, I consider these malfunctions to be a standard part of the device’s performance.  Sort of like the scratchy inaudible speaker system on New York commuter trains.

         One thing that almost never fails is the strident buzzing sound that raids the silence of your abode to announce that someone on the street wants to reach you.  If your building doesn’t have a doorman, more often than not it some poor sod trying to slip into the building to mete out publicity into the mailboxes.  You can usually pick up on that because the buzzing is short and it spreads throughout the building, as the brochure deliverer relies on the basic laws of probability.    

Picking up the receiver and answering is no guarantee that you will discover who is on the other end, because, as you will be able to see, one of four situations may occur, and they all have an equal chance of becoming a reality:

         1)    You hear the person downstairs > They can hear you.

         2)  You cannot hear the person downstairs > They can hear you.

         3)  You can hear the person downstairs > They cannot hear you.

         4)  Neither side can hear the other.

         As you can see, you have really about a 25% chance of communicating with the voice on the other end. Either that or you end up conversing with neighbor from the flat two floors down who has also picked up.


          “Who’s this?”

         “Who’s this?”  He replies with the same question because he isn’t given to shouting out his name to a total stranger.  During this period, the commercial postman is trying to interject and get inside the building.  “Can you open me up?”  But the others aren’t listening. The round of questioning can go on perpetually, until one gives. 

           “I’m in 5B.”

         “Well, I’m in 3A.  Why can I hear you?”  The neighbor is Spanish and after decades of cohabitating with these gadgets you would think he was more familiar with how they normally work; what he should have been asking was how we were able to hear the man from downstairs.  “There is something wrong with this thing.  We gotta get the maintenance guy in to fix it.”

         “Can you open me up?”

          “No!” cries out the other neighbor.  Try later.

      I hang up and wash my hands of the matter.  The guy with ads will finally coerce someone into letting him in.  It never fails.  I have mixed feelings about those people.  I know they are doing their job, but I just don’t like the fact they assume we have to open the door for them.  Especially when there is a box outside.

        The final obstacle is the button that actually lets you in.  I would say that more often than not, it fulfills its purpose, but rarely without an air of mystery, since once you have let go and checked to see if they are inside, there seldom is a reply.  Occasionally, you detect a distant echo as if they are calling you from a cave “I’m in!”, but generally, silence is the answer.  And if you have decided to let in some stranger who claims to be a person only out to stuff mailboxes, you pray their intent was not something more malicious.  Thank God Madrid is generally a very safe city.

         Some friends of mine prefer the machine-gun method of pressing the button, requiring that I time pushing the door open with the moment.  Statistics prove I often need to ring up again.  I don’t know why they do it that way.  Maybe tradition.  That makes sense, because many of the traditions that we all hold dear make any sense at all, which eventually constitutes a dear part of their charm.