Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

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?”

                “Yeap.”

           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 linguee.com, 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.

          “¿Diga?”

          “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.

Spain

January 24, 2014

Helping You Locate Barcelona

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Everyone once in a while I dabble in a little nationalism-bashing, not because I am wholly against the idea of fighting for independence if that is what the collective feels and believes, nor do I dispute the historical justification for such a credence, or at least the right to defend it.  What gets my goat, ever so slightly, is the insistence on manipulating information for the sake of God knows what…because it really makes no sense to me.

            Just the other day I was looking up some information about a town outside Madrid called Villarejo de Salvanés, because I was in a café there studying the wildlife there and decided to rummage around the fee encyclopedia to see what it said about the town…in English, which wasn’t much, to be honest.  My eyes were distracted by the list of other languages that have decided to include entries on the subject.  I have become increasingly fascinated by the number of tongues that have joined to the club.  Personally I find it a celebration of that facet that sets us apart from so many other objects in this world, but I do get a kick out of how many of these languages actually make the effort to get on the record.  Latin appears in many.  Esperanto, too.  And regional tongues such as Asturian and Aragonese have joined the ranks.  I guess this is the ideal way to bring international attention to your otherwise unknown language, and that is fine with me, but it is interesting to study the sometimes subversive forces acting behind them. 

            Take Catalan, for example, a minor but healthy language in today’s world but one with a chip on its shoulder the size of a log.  Economic, dictatorial and natural, let’s not forget, forces led to the encroachment of Castilian Spanish for many decades, but this Romance tongue, which is a kind of blend of Spanish, French and Oc, I guess, has managed to persevere quite well, thanks. 

            Enter politics.  With Catalan nationalist sentiment continually on the rise, and the possibility of a referendum looming, the people who support this region, its language and culture, go to great lengths to pretend they don’t belong to the country they belong to. 

            So, I slipped over to Catalan to see what they had to say about the town, rather surprised that they had anything to say about it.  I looked at the summary on the right and noticed that they referred to the country of Spain as a state.   Most of you would not be familiar with the word games that are played in Spain, but the use of the term “state” instead of “country” implies almost a sense of control rather than belonging.  At least that is what I used to think, until I realized that the word was used for all political nations.  The entry refers to Catalonia as a “país” or “country”, due to its cultural and linguistic identity.  At least says it is located in Spain.  If you skip over to “Barcelona”, you notice that it is defined in the entry as a city located in the Iberian Peninsula!  Oh, that country thing is not important.   The extremes people will go to avoid the facts; and that’s considering it is printed in a website which should stick to the facts.  Manipulation of information?  Absolutely.  That happens a lot.  That happens a lot, I tell you.  Let’s pretend it doesn’t exist.  And if we don’t mention it, it won’t.  God help us!

Spain

January 9, 2014

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: HISTORY OF SPAIN’S AND THE UNITED STATES’ RELATIONS 1

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Galveston, Texas, has always been associated in my mind with catastrophic tropical storms.  It’s just the way it is.  After all, this coastal city of some 50,000 inhabitants was the victim of the worst natural disaster in terms of loss of life that the United States has ever seen.  The hurricane that plowed through on September 10, 1900, left behind between 8,000-12,000 deaths.  No cyclone has come close to inflicting such a lethal blow on a populace.  In fact, it is said that the combined number of victims of all the other tropical storms to affect America (some 300 in all) doesn’t even match it.  It was that devastating.

      One clear factor was the absence of adequate forecasting back then.  The residents were not aware of what was to befall them.  Foolhardiness played a part too.  The weather bureau director of the town, a man by the name of Isaac Clines, just nine years before announced that, what many considered to be an obviously recommendable seawall for the emerging summertime resort town, was entirely unnecessary mainly because strong storms would never make landfall there.  So no barrier was erected.  Galveston was built on a sandy island whose peak elevation is only nine feet high, yes, that’s a whole foot below a basketball hoop, and it’s located on the western banks of one of the world’s most active tropical storm breeding grounds.  So it is safe to say the town was heading for disaster.  You could also claim with equal confidence that Clines was in no way suited for the position he held.  

I hadn’t given much more thought to Galveston until recently when I learned that it was named after a Spanish military commander, Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, who led a brilliant campaign for his country and the American colonies during the Revolutionary War.  The soldier really has nothing to do with the town, having died 51 years before it was officially incorporated.  But a Spanish explorer in the 1780s decided to honor an early settlement in his name because, it should be noted, around that time, Gálvez was an outright hero in that corner of the world, considered by some to be the savior of the American cause.

Few people have ever given Spain the credit it was due for its contribution to the American Revolution, or the Guerra de Independencia, as the Spanish call it.  American history teachers and textbooks key in on Lafayette and the French role, but it can be argued, and quite convincingly too, that Spain’s appearance and support was just as vital and, in many ways, more successful than France’s, since the latter went bankrupt when the conflict was over on 1783. 

The Spanish worked masterfully by entering the war late, sweeping the British in the South when they were already nearly crippled, and emerging from the Treaty of Paris with a handful of recovered territories and renewed prestige.  It wouldn’t last long, but I guess it good while it lasted.

            While at the time a waning world power which had recently taken a licking during the Seven Years’ War (The French and Indian War in America), Spain still had the means and the experience to pose a threat to its rivals, and welcomed any opportunity to inflict damage on them.  The fact that the same family ruled in both Madrid and neighboring France only served to cement the alliance. 

            The motive was mainly geopolitical, there is no doubt about that.  If not, why else would two monarchies, one especially autocratic, support a revolution bent on ousting a king and forming a republic?  Those would have been dangerous ideas to support.  But I guess screwing over the British and grabbing some land was far more tempting (as well as shortsighted) than realizing they were putting themselves into danger down the road.

       Once war broke out in the colonies, the other European powers made a point of it to supply the insurrectionists with the material and arms necessary to combat their English foes.  Eventually the French were persuaded to join the conflict and not long afterwards the Spanish, in June 1779, declared war and got in on the act.  Gálvez, who was already actively, though covertly, aiding the American side, was then commissioned with the difficult task of breaking the British control of southern waters and borders.  Success would mean a major setback for the British and they knew it.

Gálvez headed an almost motley force of Spanish professionals, American revolutionaries, native American Indians, slaves and other individuals of unknown origins and aims.  With an army of fewer than 2,000 troops, he managed to take Baton Rouge, Natchez, Mobile and finally, with the help of much needed reinforcements, laid siege to Pensacola, the most important British stronghold in the region.  The English finally capitulated and the south was now free of their presence. 

Gálvez carried out one of the most tactically sound campaigns of the war, achieving his objections not so much by brute force, as he lacked the numbers to overwhelm the enemy, but rather by ingeniousness.  Students of military operations have nothing but praise for his performance.  On top of that, he wasn’t one of those sissy members of the Spanish nobility who were granted a high rank based on his family name rather career performance.  He earned his place because he fought bravely in a number of wars and was wounded on now fewer than three occasions: once quite seriously while fighting the Apaches, again while in battle in Algiers, and a third time at Pensacola.  He was a stud.  A real Spanish macho.

The claim that he saved the war for the Americans is an exaggeration because the British were already showing signs of fatigue from their own personal Vietnam. And Parliament had all but lost its patience with the inconclusive results.  Win a battle, lose a battle.  It didn’t matter.  The war was going no where.  Save for some unforeseen miracle, like Washington and the entire continental army being struck by a meteorite, British defeat was all but a sure thing.

But there  is no doubt that Spain played a key role in expediting the outcome.  And yet, so little is discussed about the role of the Spanish in liberating of the colonies from the English crown that even students on the subject come upon its story with a degree of surprise.  Is it possible that Spain’s self-promoting problems go back that far?

Madrid,Spain

January 6, 2014

Cheers for Fears

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The sun has emerged somewhat for the first time all year, which is only five days old, mind you, but since this isn’t Vancouver, it seems like an eternity to Madrid.  I wouldn’t quite go as far as to say it’s sunny, but rather a dusty purplish hue of the kind you might see on a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. 

I’ve heard several complain that the year is off to a bad start, that the murky climatic conditions are representative of the country’s mood and future, but the optimists have something different to say.  It means, they claim, plenty of water for the countryside and that in turn spells good news for agriculture which, in turn, augurs a period of bonanza. 

Liberal interpretations aside, four days of rain is never a bad thing in Spain because, as anyone who has spent an extended period of their life here can tell you, you just never know when it will show up next. Summertime can come and go with nary a drop from the heavens.  So, we take what we can get because every little bit counts.  I just wish things could be spread out a little more evenly. 

             Yesterday was January 5th, the Eve of the Epiphany, The Twelfth Night, Three Kings’ Day, and with it Spain’s particular version of Santa Claus.  The shops all opened their doors in hopes that the final rush will turn their otherwise listless Sunday into proof that the rains have brought better times.  

Just down the street, Nuno’s, Madrid’s famous pastry shop, has a line thirty-long going out the door as people patiently wait to purchase his award-winning roscón, or Three Kings’ Cake.  It’s been that way for the past three days.  The TV was there just yesterday making its annual visit.  I’ve tried them…they are all right…but you will not get me to wait in unfriendly weather conditions just to sink my teeth into one.

            Last night the Three Kings will descended upon hundreds of cities and towns and parcel out millions of gifts to millions of nail-biting children in one final Christmas effort to close out the season.  While the rest of the world has dumped most of its trees at the designated town drop-off center, Spain, in true Spanish fashion, has taken the festivities just a step further.  Madrid’s parade runs along the Castellana Street, and last night’s version was a particularly bright and cheery, especially considering it drizzled for most of the event.  Three American marching bands added a good measure of upbeat high school flavor to the cavalcade and for some reason, the general impression that I got was that people were plain happy to see 2013 go and start afresh.  It wasn’t a good year.  Another loop around the sun waiting and hoping and praying for better times.  It rained…we cheered; it rained…we cheered. 

Madrid,Spain

January 4, 2014

Taxis and Schumi

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I was relieved to find out that Madrid’s public transport system had decided not to jack up its prices again as a way of ringing in the New Year.  Once a haven for the economically and ecologically minded, like so many other aspects of this city, transportation has lost its luring luster.  Not long ago, you could still purchase special rates like ten trips for ten euros to anywhere in the city.  Then the company figured that colleagues in other cities were charging double that and that they, the ones in Madrid, were being perhaps just a little too generous with the population. Now the starting rate to go anywhere is 1.50€, and if you buy a single at one of those machines, how far you want to travel will have a bearing on how much lighter your pocket will be when the transaction is completed.  And trust me, you don’t have to wonder a great distance for cost to rise.  Airport transport was another fine example.  There is an airport bus that used to take you from the center of town to Barajas for a near laughable 2 euros.  And the metro would tack on just a 1-euro supplement to your normal ticket for the extra effort of coasting you in within walking distance.  Too good to be true?  Yeap, it was.  Clearly something was not right.  You just don’t give good service for low rates.  The EMT, Madrid’s bus transport service, decided 5 euros was more appropriate.  That meant a 150% price increase.  The owners of the company must have come to an agreement with Metro de Madrid, logically, and followed suit, by setting the cost at 5 euros too.  If you are traveling light and have the time, it’s a great alternative to the hefty fees of a taxi, generally around 30+ euros all said and told, but a 500% supplement rise is a bit abusive in my book.

            I haven’t taken a taxi yet, so I can’t say how things are there.  I certainly wasn’t going to grab one on New Year’s Eve, where they tack on a hair-falling 6.70 euros just because it’s the final (or first) night of the year.  I’m sorry those poor souls have to work on a night like that, but sticking you for that amount (plus the 2,90€ start-up fee), just to say “Please, take me to…” is simply unreasonable.  Even more so when you think other cities with generally more prosperous residents don’t go there.  Plus, considering your standard Tuesday night in January drivers would otherwise people scraping for customers, the guaranteed business should be welcome.  Why punish them with an extra cost that 230% hirer than the initial one?

            Oh, well.  I guess I shouldn’t gripe.  Things could be worse.  Look at Michael Schumacher, for example.  A six days ago he went skiing with some friends and now he’s been that long in a medically induced coma trying to suffer severe head injuries as a result of an accident whose cause is not quite clear.  The original version was that he was plunging recklessly down a steep slant outside the main slope, or the piste, if you want to sound European, which many accepted as fact since part of his success and brilliance as a race car driver had to do with the temerarious in which he performed on the race track.  What could you expect from someone always living on the edge?  On top of that, apparently his son was with him, which made it doubly scandalous, no matter how bad you felt for him.

            The tides have been turning since then, and though many point out that it shouldn’t matter how it happened, the fact is…the facts can and are important.   We like to be the ones to publically announce otherwise, but that’s just to get what I call “talk show applause”, where people routinely assert opinions that no one really agrees with or believes in but which everyone is afraid to admit.  So, we all clap.  A lot.

Plus, watching how the media handles these subjects fascinates me.  It’s a straightforward story; there shouldn’t be much to it.  But there is.  Honor.  First there was word that he was helping out a friend, then the son of a friend, but now the German tabloid Bild claims Schumi was with a group of friends and their children and was pulling up the rear to make sure everything was all right.  He then noticed one of the children, a young girl, having trouble, and he swept over to aid the damsel in distress.  Somehow that led him some twenty yards off the track (the piste, please) where he encountered a rock and lost his balance, causing him to crash into another one.  According to his longtime manager and press spokesperson, Sabine Kehm, he was not going fast at all.

Now Bild is known for its sensationalist reporting, and as a German periodical, it will obviously want to come to the defense of one of that country’s greatest sports legends.  But their version does depart notably from the one presented up to that point.  Essentially, the only thing the two have in common is that he was skiing and hit a rock.  The addition of the little girl may very well be true, I am in no position to question that, but should it turn out to be fancy, or highly distorted fact, well then I am liable not to consider Bild as a reliable news source ever again.  The online version did provide a video which traced more or less the tracks down the slope.  I am a chicken when it comes to skiing, but even I could tell the slope, sorry piste, was tame enough. 

So, what I don’t get is how a man with his skiing experience, on a slope so gentle a billiard ball would come to a stop, and while assisting a young girl with complications should end up striking a boulder so hard that his helmet would actually split in two.  It cast doubt on the story of his true speed as well as the quality of the helmet.  Oh well, we should learn the truth soon enough.

Here in Spain, a country with a healthy following of Formula 1 racing, coverage has been complete and support widespread for a recovery, to begin with, and a complete one if possible.  Criticism went out to two-time champion Fernando Alonso, who took 24 hours to actually send a twitter of support to his previous rival.  On top of that, it was something heartwarming like “Get well soon!” followed by a few other rather impersonal remarks.  Oh well, it could have been worse.  Hamilton, the British driver not always known for his camaraderie, posted a Twitter picture two days later of him skiing.  Gracias.

Madrid,Spain

Faith in a World that Makes Sense

Jetlag and drizzle has dominated the dawn days of the year.  The former was good for the first night since it was New Year’s Eve and I could make it through much of the night feeling almost like a true Spaniard.  I have always liked to go out, but even in my heyday, 4:00 a.m. was about my limit, whereas the real revelers would push on until morning rush hour.  I have done that, just never been a big fan of it.  My body just gives in.  The Spanish are in no hurry on New Year’s Eve.  Sometimes they will hang around at home and play games like charades until three or four in the morning and then announce, “Ok.  Let’s go out!”  I have trouble dealing with people who carry on to Lady Gaga at the same time farmers are rising to milk their cows and my brother is knotting his tie on his way to the 6:00 a.m. express to Grand Central.  I become irascible and just plain nasty.  But since the biorhythms of my body were about six hours behind, I managed to appear alert and even amiable at three in the morning, when I was at a friend’s house and actively participating in their karaoke game.    My voice only sounds good when I am alone and uninhibited by an audience.  But when I stand before a listener, be they a couple of friends, everything falls apart…or at least that is what the damned machine on the TV seems to indicate, using words like “bad” or “terrible” and at best, an occasional “acceptable”.

            By four in the morning my body began to slouch in its seat and my jaw hang low, and instead of turning into the kind of guy who would spark a riot, I was starting to look like Stephen Hawking, but without the brains.  By the way, I was encouraged to see that another writer in this world, one is far more famous and accomplished than myself, admitted in print that Hawking’s famous “A Brief History of Time” was incomprehensible.  Not entirely, I feel.   The first eighty pages are pretty much easy to follow, but all of the sudden, you slam into this brick wall and say with a dozy look, “Huh?”  You read it several times and if anything it becomes less clear.  The writer warns you of this, but you read on fearlessly all the way to the end, close the cover and say, “Ok, let’s see what’s on ESPN” in hopes you will find renewed faith in the world that makes sense.

            My friend Luis told me he was about to go too and asked me if I minded waiting a few more minutes.  As my body had showed signs of slipping into the first stages of a coma, I did not put up a fight.  He popped a cigarette out of his pack and slid it into his mouth meaning we’d be there a little longer.  Time was as relative and incomprehensible as ever.

Images of Spain,Spain

January 2, 2014

Shake Your Booty

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You have to hand it to the Spanish.  They sure know how to make the most of any festive occasion, even when there isn’t any apparent one to be found.  They pull it out of their asses and turn an otherwise subdued atmosphere into a little shindig.  New Year’s is a fine example.  People often ask me what Americans do on New Year’s Eve, because many think the rest of the world stays at home with the family the way they do and prep for gulping down a dozen pieces of fruit at midnight.  My audience usually consists of people and pets ranging from 5 years to 75 years of age, and so I forego the part about folks drinking to the brink of language impairment and vomiting as a way of ringing in the New Year and address it with a sugar-coated “They go out”. 

            Many parties in other parts of the world rage for much of the evening, which is partially explains why people scream and shout like cowboys and embrace with such fervor before tumbling over and breaking the family glass coffee table.  It also helps me to understand why the Puerta del Sol seemed so subdued compared to cities of similar size.  They were just cranking up, and just as many people from faraway lands were puttering home, the Spanish were out in the streets heading for their first social commitment.  I didn’t show up at mine until 2:00a.m.

 

            On top of that, they don’t even need a crowd to have a party.  With just six of us at our family gathering, there was more than enough humanity to turn the living room into a makeshift disco, twisting and swaying to some of the 1960s finest one-hit wonders, like “Black is black” (Spain’s first nº 1 in the U.S., believe it or not) or the Shocking Blue’s (a Dutch group, this time) “Venus”, which was revived by Bananarama in the 1980s. These are still no-fail tunes at nearly any Spanish home.  Mostly it was the two older sisters who did the dancing, urging the three men, me included, to join in, which we did, though the elderly mother literally sat out. I secretively envied her because after all these years I just don’t find shaking my booty with four people in an apartment and with all the lights on, much less in front of an eighty-year-old woman that natural, who cheerfully clapped along.  But then again, if KC and the Sunshine Band (who by the way just played at the Rose Bowl) could go on TV donning goofy funky clothes and repeating the same line over and over for five minutes, I guess I could hold out for a gratuitous for the while for the sake of New Year’s merriment. 

     The Spanish love this, and I admire them for feeling so comfortable about expressing their joy without the least bit of worry or care about their image.  It’s funny, they often cry to me that they can’t speak foreign languages because they are too afraid to look ridiculous in front of others.  Then images of middle-aged Spaniards shimmying shamelessly to James Brown come to mind and I just laugh a little to myself.  That’s my Spain!

Madrid,Uncategorized

December 31, 2013

San Silvestre – Running on Full

December 31st isn’t just about raising a glass of cheer to the New Year, nor does it have only to do with wolfing down twelve grapes at midnight, though both stand out in participation and zeal.  In many parts of Spain, and in Madrid in particular, it means locking on your running shoes and bounding ten kilometers down the Castellana of Madrid all the way to Vallecas.  This is known as the Carrera de San Silvestre, and it also is the biggest street race of Brazil, I take it.

            This fun run is just the kind of social gathering the Spanish love.  It’s also packed with feel-good benefits, like getting in a little exercise before the excesses of the night that looms, or burning off a few hundred of those calories that have colonized in your body over the past few days.  The sad news is that we are only halfway through the Twelve Days of Christmas, but I guess every little bit helps.

            Saint Sylvester I was one of the first popes and it was under his papacy that the original Saint Peter’s Basilica was built.  Not much is known about him, and what is available is highly debated, so we’ll center on his death, which was not a tortuous martyrdom as was so common back then, but seemingly natural causes.  The day was December 31st, he missed out on that year’s festivities, but did leave the legacy for long-distance runners centuries down the road, if you’ll excuse the pun.  Certainly this was not part the design, but history has a funny way of working that way.

            I have yet to take part in the old San Silvestre, though if only to free myself from the incessant Whatsapp  New Year greetings piling up on my cell, it wouldn’t have been a bad idea.  I will make it one of my objectives for next year.  There you have it, my first proposition.  A good choice.  I have eleven and half free months before I have to get working on it. 

Uncategorized

December 1, 2013

Images of Spain: Hanging out the Wash

There it is.  One fine display of clothes clipped neatly on a sagging line of nylon rope and dangling in the foreground of the elevator in one of our patios interiores.  It could be located in any one of a thousand buildings.

I can’t speak for all parts of the States, but in general, in my part of Connecticut, hanging out the wash is not only unseen, it’s quite unsightly.  Some people I know get uptight because they seem to think it represents the kind of backwardness only people who shoot alligators in the head will do to their laundry.  But in Spain, even to this day, in modern and cosmopolitan Madrid, a clothes dryer is rarer than a coming upon a forest in La Mancha.  It’s almost considered extravegant.

        There is a certain logic behind this all.  Madrid’s climate is generally so arid that it doesn’t take long for the clothes to become stiff dry.  One night will do, and in the blistering summer heat, even less.  Periods of dampness naturally hamper the process, which is when you have to haul things in and use an indoor rectractable clothesline, because no one wants one hanging around when there is no precipitation.  But other than that, the traditional way is both a money and energy saver.  In Connecticut in the summer, if you are hit by a prolonged stretch of humid weather, your jeans might never quite free themselves of moisture.

      I take pride in this image as it is proof that I have come close to mastering one of the great Spanish chores: hanging out the wash.  And for those of you who are looking for further and irrefutable proof, I will gladly introduce you to the neighbor from upstairs, an amiable elderly woman whom I barely know, but who just recently honored me with her approval of how I set my boxers out for drying.  Coming from a Spanish señora, that says a lot.  They don’t mete out those compliments for free.  It’s another milestone.

      This morale booster would probably never have been brought to my attention had it not been for the fact that a handkerchief had slipped from her upstairs line and drifted onto mine, an unlikely occurrence, but one that could occur all the same.  Clothes drop, but generally not as often as the clothes pins, which have a funny habit of popping off from their grip on the article of clothing they should be securing and plummenting to the bottom of the interior patio.  I always wait in silence for the plasticky bounce and in the meantime wonder about the horror of being the object in flight instead.  I bet a lot of people do.  It seems to take forever.

       She rang the doorbell, I thought it was my daughter, and told me of the predicament, and when I opened my window to retrieve the article she had asked for, my daughter did show up and she greeted to woman.  The woman asked her if “papá” was going to make lunch, she said yes.  Then the woman added, “If it’s just as good as the way he hangs out his wash, I am sure it will be delicious.”

      What I didn’t know at the time was that how I positioned my clothes along a stretch of rope was apparently under scrutiny by the female residents of the building, but then again, by this point in my life, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise.  Spanish señoras are sharp observers of how their neighbors conduct their business, and more so of anything that is visible, such as the wash.  Up until that point my only concern was the family below on the days that I wash my sheets and they dangle down like huge banners obstructing the view.  Of the inside patio, of course.  You aren’t allowed to hangout your wash on your balcony, at least in most parts of Madrid.  That is certainly unsightly and unseen.

      Thanks to the bit of positive reinforcement, I now devote a few extra seconds to perfecting my technique.