Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


December 26, 2014

The 30 Days of Christmas 6

With the Great Cena de Navidad somewhat under control, the day itself finally arrived. The menu was the following:

Chunky white tuna with roasted red peppers
Codfish scrambled eggs
Grilled Octopus

Main Course (to choose):
Hake with fake baby eel and shrimp

Medley of desserts
All drinks plus coffee and liqueurs included
Price: 30€

     Just what you would expect at this time of year. Your standard meal. The offer may have been a little heavy on the seafood for some, and I can’t imagine many American friends back home shouting, “Octopus! Awesome!” but it was a pretty decent lineup all the same. And 18 of us would gather that night to pass final judgment.

     But first we had to get through the mercadillo, an intense, frenetic, fast-paced bazaar in which about a 1,000 people descend upon the school playground and ravage yards and yards of secondhand articles. Because it’s only once a year, and because it lasts an hour and 45 minutes, and because most objects go for under 3€, the market within seconds of commencing turns into the kind of frenzy you witness when watching those documentaries in which a ham bone is dipped into a piranha infested Amazon only to be extracted flesh-free seconds later. I was glad to see how successful it was, disconcerted by pushing and shoving at times, but pleased to see the counters cleared in record time. And all, as usual, for the benefit of charity.

     To many people’s surprise, food was one of the few items which could not be sold there, for two reasons. One was that, in a rare showing of prohibition of temptations in life, serving children sugary sweets on school grounds was frowned upon. The second reason, in a rare showing of near American litigation paranoia, had to do with the concern that baked goods would somehow result in widespread food poisoning.

     Only exception was allowed for the chocolate con churros, which was served and provided for by the school kitchen’s catering service. Churros, as many now know, are the fried dough which has grown in the Unites States, especially at amusement parks and sports stadiums. That came through Latin America, but the origins seem to go back further to Spain, where they are still munched down daily, especially for breakfast, though you are also popular in cafeterías for the afternoon snack. The life span of these fritters is shorter than a fly’s. Within hours it degenerates into something chewy and limp. A victual you spit out seconds later thinking you have accidently tried to bite into a piece of cable. That is why, unless the place specializes in the product and is likely to have them fairly fresh all day long, you are best to order them before 11:00 a.m. or between, say 5:00 and 7:00p.m. Other than that, you’re at your own risk. Street stands are a different matter, as they are made fresh all the time. Your only concern should be the oil they use. But if you have ever eaten a hot dog in Midtown Manhattan and survived, you are immune.

     The chocolate does not refer to a bar of chocolate, but rather to a hot drink, and it too has its peculiarities in terms of consistency and timetable. To say that this is cocoa would do injustice to both cocoa as well as to the Spanish version itself. It is neither, and certainly a far cry from the beverage Swiss Miss would produce. It’s thick, often so viscose that it seems you are drinking a bowl of hot chocolate pudding and you sometimes have to ask for a spoon to scrape up the blobs of sweet chocolate stuck to the sides of the cup. The churros, which in Madrid are made into the shapes of ribbons. You pull them apart like wishbones and then dip them into the drink.

     Some sources I have read mention that it is most commonly consumed at breakfast time, but that it is essentially false. People normally don’t go for a cup of heavy chocolate to start the day and prefer substituting it with coffee. The only time you do see that is if you’ve spent all night out at the discos and are looking for some substance before you hit the sack. Either that or are stopping by legendary chocolaterías like San Ginés. Once again, this is an afternoon fare, and something to tide you over until dinner, which won’t be happening for several hours.

     It should come as no surprise that consuming chocolate should be popular in Spain. After all, they have been doing it longer than any other European. They were the first to come across its powerful influence in Central and South America in the days they were busy they were conquering half of the continent.

     It is well known that back then, cacao beans were highly prized by the great native tribes and civilizations, so much so that they were even used as currency. Cocoa in its purest form is very bitter and when the Spanish came to their lands, what they encountered as was frothy acrimonious beverage served cold drink and made relatively palatable with chili peppers and other spices like vanilla. It also had some alcohol. It was said to have been an acquired taste. A highly acquired taste. Descriptions ranging from vile to nauseating, at best, but it certainly meant a lot to the locals. Spaniards who spent a long enough time in the region grew to liking it and around 1530, the first samples of hard chocolate were brought back to the fatherland where the story goes that it was a monk in the Monasterio de la Piedra, a beautiful residence outside of Zaragoza, where one monk softly suggested that a little bit of sugar be added to the block of chocolate paste the other monks were working on. To say the innovation was nothing less the ingenious and far-reaching is possibly an understatement. One of the world’s most popular foods was born on this soil and billions of human have been grateful to creator of the improvement ever since.

     Chocolate was practically exclusive to Spain throughout the 16th Century, but it eventually broadened in popularity, especially when other additions like milk made the product even more seductive. Ironically, the Spanish, despite these brilliant contributions, are no longer viewed as powerhouse producers of the fine chocolate, the way the Swiss and Belgians are. And the reasons are obvious. It’s pretty straightforward and drab compared to the elite. But the drink, that thick, creamy drink is often so delicious it seems hardly a creation from this world. And on a cold day when you have to rub your hands and kick the ground to keep warm, the kind of day we were having at the mercadillo, there is nothing better. Nothing.

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.


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. 


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. 


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.


Madrid,Uncategorized,What's happening in Madrid

September 21, 2013

A Relaxing Cup of Café con Leche

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I try to avoid getting involved in these matters, but sometimes I just can’t resist.  Madrid’s mayor, Ana Botella, made some recent remarks about the city when campaigning for its candidacy to host the Olympics.  Madrid got bounced in the first round of the final selection, and Ana Botella became the brunt of countless jokes regarding her seemingly ragged use of English.

      The catch phrase is now “a relaxing cup of café con leche (coffee with milk)”, and it has become so famous that even my little 3rd-graders know about it, and so infamous that you can now buy coffee mugs online with the sentence stamped on them in different colors and fonts.

      It has been ridiculed and parodied beyond belief, with jokes and videos spreading like wildfire far and wide throughout the social networks .  Such was the uproarious laughter that I finally caved in and decided to check out on Youtube the video and endure the suffering for myself and by myself, in the comfort of my living room.

      I’ll be as brief as possible, and resort to my expertise as a teacher to provide a fairly balanced opinion.  To be honest, it wasn’t great but it was a far cry from the disaster that I expected given the backlash it received.  Ana spoke with a heavy accent, had several fairly serious pronunciation issues, and clearly hasn’t mastered the language.  That explains the forced diction and the artificial gestures.  Basically she looked as if she was trying to pull off the tough task of speaking in public in a foreign language and she did the best she could.  For the most part the speech was standard, not very inspired, promotional garble which was delivered with difficulty.  And the famous Spanglish that everyone is laughing at hardly exists.  The speech lasts 2.50 seconds and more than halfway through it, she spits out the now notorious “a relaxing cup of café con leche in the Plaza Mayor.”  She mentions the Madrid de los Austrias, and immediately adds what that all means in English. The rest of the talk was given in English.

      First of all, you can call a cup of coffee “relaxing”.  Several “experts” from Spain have expressed to me their utter disbelief that Botella would use such an adjective to describe a cup of joe, but the fact is you can.  Just to clarify that one.  As for the use of “café con leche”, that was just a little friendly use of local language.  Probably not the best choice, but still, even I could see that.  Plus, it’s not that easy to translate.

      Verdict: the speech wasn’t topnotch, and Botella’s English needs work, but it wasn’t horrible either and certainly not worthy of the thrashing it took.

      So, after listening to two weeks of relentless criticism and watching the clip myself, I have come to the conclusion that the event has accentuated two very grave and present facts: Spain’s English level is still wanting; and God help you if you make a mistake because if you do you’ll become the laughing stock of the nation.

      As for the first part, there is nothing surprising about that. Spain has for years suffered from an inferiority complex when it comes to speaking this language.  It’s the famous “asignatura pendiente”, as they say here.  Back in the 90s, most parents came to me saying that they couldn’t help their kids because they had learned French in school.  Then came the gradual switch to English, which, though taught throughout a student’s life, produced poor results.  Poor teaching and general disregard for the language.  On top of that, as many will tell you, Spain dubs all of its TV programs and movies.  The industry is one of the finest in the world, but it does have its downside.  It prevents youths from picking up the language naturally, and, what’s worse, it fosters an aversion toward the language.  Few people spoke it, and not very well at that.  And I am talking about the capital.  Once out in the smaller cities or in the country, forget it.

       The effects of the past faulty educational setup and social antipathy are still being felt today.  A recent report rated Spain in the middle ground when it comes to competence in English, 18th, to be exact, and behind some 15 other European nations. That’s not so hot.  But I am here to tell you that, despite the rejection and the mediocre teaching techniques, it is heads and tails above what it used to be.  With the arrival of bilingual education (Madrid is nearly at the forefront of this movement) things are turning around considerably.  We are still talking about a change that will require a generation or two to come into its fullest fruition, but it will happen. I am not concerned.

      What does unsettle me is the vicious blasting over practically nothing.  I browsed through about the first 100 comments and couldn’t find a single one that had anything fair to say about it.  The chiding was merciless, but that behavior is as traditional here as watching soccer. The Spanish are often the first to admit that they don’t like to speak English because of their sense of embarrassment about saying the wrong thing.  This I find amusing because their love of swearing shows they don’t seem to have any qualms about blurting out in Spanish, “Holy shit! That motherfucker is really pissing me off,” in front of their grandmother.

      Then again, after the berating Ana Botella received, I don’t blame them for not wanting to utter a single word of English, because look what happens to you when you slip up.  I would shut my mouth too.

      So suddenly everyone is an expert in English.  In some cases even more so than the English themselves.  Take the Comunidad de Madrid’s standardized exam to check on the progress of its bilingual program.  The actually exam itself was Cambridge’s Young Learners of English tests which are recognized by the European Union as valid measurements of a child’s level of the language.  The exam has three parts – Speaking, Listening, and a combined part on Reading & Writing – which are graded from 1 (being the worst) to 5 shields.  That means a student can receive a total of 15 shields.

      Cambridge oddly asserts that there is no passing or failing in these exams.  However, if you receive ten or more shields, then you are ready to go on to the next level.  Hmm.  I’ll have to think about that one.

      In any event, if you can achieve that number, then you have what is considered to be an A1 level.  Cambridge does not specify a minimum in any one category, as long as you obtain ten.  This standard is admitted by the European Union.

      The Comunidad de Madrid has decided that it would use the Cambridge exams but assess students differently in two ways:

        1)    Evaluate just the Speaking and Listening, requiring a total of 7 shields to pass, and 4 have to be in speaking, and at least 3 have to be in listening.  So, in short, they require at least a 70% on a test, and, in some cases, that isn’t enough, since if the speaking is a three and the listening is a four, you don’t pass.  On one occasion, a student had a 5 on listening and a 3 on speaking (yes, that’s 80%), and failed.

        2)    They could also assess all three parts in which a pupil needed to obtain 11 shields (and at least 4 in speaking), to pass.  In theory, a child could get up to 13 out of 15 shields and still be turned down.  How’s that for motivating.

      Of course, none of this has anything to do with how Cambridge looks at it, and that’s considering it’s their test.  The Comunidad de Madrid simply decided that it was going to prove to the world that its standard was tougher than the rest without really justifying it at all.

      This kind of cockiness is known in Spanish as “chulería”, and in Madrid, it’s as common and typical as a relaxing cup of café con leche.



October 24, 2012

Excerpt from a new book about Greenwich, 26 (draft)

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Still December 31st.

Blue Laws

Now the media were getting all pumped up again because the death took place on a huge backcountry estate in Greenwich and had all the makings of a good scandal.  Details were sketchy, but just from the initial reports, the whole scene sounded good and grisly.  I rubbed my hands with anticipation and grinned, but I would have to wait and see.

         So, I focused my attention on the rest of the day which was being constructed on certain uncertainty, thanks to the current atmospheric conditions.  The storm was moving north which just happened to be the direction we were heading in, so for once I used my noggin a bit and decided to wait a few hours to see if things cleared up.

         In the meantime, I went to buy the Greenwich Time to check out what it had to say about the end of the year.  I walked down to the deli, flipped the bird at dog on the way (mainly because it was inside and out of sight), purchased that day’s edition, bid a happy New Year to the owners and returned.  I got to the doorstep and kicked off as best as I could the snow from the rubber canyons of the soles of my boots and walked in, only to pull them off again, sit down at the dining room table and set the expanse of the newspaper fully on the glass surface.

        Considering it was the last day of the year, the headlines were extraordinarily dull, as if it were the 17th of Boredemder or Tedium Tuesday. Here’s what I laid my eyes upon:

  • UnionReaches Vote Threshold.  Yawn.
  • Brushing Up on Painting Techniques. Yawn and groan.
  • YMCA nears funding goal.  Slap in the face.
  • Man dies after being tasered by police. This was not in Greenwich so it doesn’t count.
  • Lawmakers may consider wine sales in supermarkets. Bingo!

        Now that last one is what I called news!  Good news!  Long overdue news!  It turned out the state would probably give in because it could foresee a long-term revenue advantage built into the whole plan, but the rest of us believed it as something that should have happened long ago.  Then again, this was Connecticut, and things don’t always moved forward that quickly.  For example, alcohol, up until just a few years ago, could not be sold after eight and never on Sundays.  Now the closing time has been raised an hour, and the Lord’s-day thing seems destined to be shelved with all of those other former-sabbath prohibitions.

     But it sure took a while, trust me.  These religiously-based rules were called blue laws and Connecticut was notorious for them.  In fact the first mention of them in written form had to do with the rigid legislation that reigned in this state.   Some laws may have resulted in many a dreary Sunday afternoon watching the game while sipping on a glass of water, but after looking at the way things were run around here back in Colonial times, you definitely get the feeling the state has loosened up over the years.  For example, as a child you could legally be put to death for swearing or refusing to sweep the floor.  To me, that makes staring at a closed sign on the liquor store appear almost refreshing.

       The good thing about living in Greenwich, though, was that you could always cross the border into Port Chester, New York and buy booze basically at any time you want, then run it back.  Our neighboring state is generous and more flexible in that sense.  In fact, it seems to me that there was little that you couldn’t do around the clock there.  Some call it shameless, others reckless, and even others opportunistic;  we just called it lucky.

     The big place to buy at was this dumpy-looking but effective warehouse called WestConn, which still exists by the way.  The second choice was Cumberland Farms, one of the first true convenience stores in the area.  The Farms was a last resort because it jacked up its prices in standard screw-you-because-we-can-do-it-since-we’re-the-only-ones-open fashion.  It also purveyed all of those hazardous frozen cooked foods from the 1970s and 1980s that most likely have been responsible for the death of a generation or two since.

     WestConn was the main aim, though, and also where you got your kegs for the parties when getting kegs for teenagers was not so frowned upon.  Families actually supported it.  Hell, parents practically pumped the taps for the guests. I remember my older sisters and brothers throwing some of the biggest shindigs in town.  It was the kind of status that, back in the 1970s, made you proud to be a Murdock.  The police would sometimes come and politely but firmly ask us to tone things down, turn a blind eye to the dozens of wasted teens stumbling off to their cars, and when all was settled down, go back to the public school parking lots and hang out…or whatever else they did at night in those days.  In fact, having the local authorities sweep in to break up the crowd was a unquestionable sign of success.  It meant we would be the talk of school on Monday.

      They often came because one of our neighbors would always complain.  He was a self-contained kind of person who owned two nasty German Shepherds called Lothar and Himmler, or some name like that.  Most balls that floated onto their property were left there forever as acknowledgement that no toy was worth getting neutered for.

       By the time I was of the age to have my own parties, drinking laws had changed fairly radically, with the brunt of responsibility falling heavily on the owner of the home, namely my parents; that curtailed almost all activity on a legal level.  Which doesn’t mean we didn’t have parties; we just had to go underground.  I authored two major clandestine events.  One was in winter when snow covered the lawn.  The side of the driveway was full of incriminating tire tracks.  Some even curved around trees.  The morning after, as I gazed out the front yard, I pondered the situation calmly but with a degree of desperation stirring inside.  This was not going to be easy to explain.  I gave it some thought and came up with one of those unsound Grinchy ideas.   That was it!  What if…

        On paper it was a risky and last-ditch effort to salvage a lost cause.  I went to the garage and returned with a shovel and, this is the honest to God truth, started to fill in dozens of wheel tracks.  The finished product looked like, well, a lot of wheel tracks sloppily filled in with snow.   I leaned on the handle of my shovel and surveyed the results of my endeavors.  It looked like crap and there was no way in hell my parents weren’t going to nab me.  In fact, had they arrived at that moment I most certainly would have been writing these lines from a jail cell as my father, being a lawyer, would have dug up some old blue law which entailed a life sentence.

          It was hopeless, unless I got lucky and my parents return flight got delayed two weeks.  Other than that, I just couldn’t see myself pulling it off.  In fact, as I drove off to a friend’s house, I made tentative plans to seek adoption should the need arise.  It didn’t.  You see, it could not have been a sunnier day, but it was also very windy, and the blustery weather effectively swept the tracks clean, like a desert.  By afternoon, no easily detectable evidence could be found.  Only the most experienced manhunter would have possibly noticed something, and, even then, maybe not.  Mother Nature had saved my ass.

        Years later when we lived up in Darien and I tried it again, she would kick it.  This time it was summer and it was raining all day.  I even considered calling it off, but we were all in the mood, so we said what the hell.  Well, muddy soil is a far more difficult terrain to control, and I awoke the next day to go to work, I knew I was a challenge because the backyard looked like one of those battlefields in France during World War I.  It was as if Mother Nature was telling me, “You know, Brian, you are one big dumb fuck.  And this time I’m going to make you pay for it.”

       The first to nail us was Mary Jones, the housekeeper, who had no reason to be up at that time or day, or even that day at all, but had lived with us far too long to know what was going on.  She went through the roof and I took a shellacking as a result.  But that was just the beginning of it.  Luckily for me I had to go to work and missed the arrival of my parents whose irate eruption, from what I understand, would have triggered a tsunami had it taken place on the shore.  I got my share when I got home, and a well-deserved one.  That party would end up being the final full-fledged Murdock party in history…the end of an era.

Images of Spain,Uncategorized

October 22, 2012

Images of Spain: the village café

It’s Saturday around two o’clock and though te international press, especially the British and the New York Times, would like the world to think that much of this population is picking its food out of the trash bins or killing dogs for meals, much of the country looks like this.  This must be such a disappointment to the foreign correspondent in search of misery and despair. Oh weel, their problem.  You see, this is not just a typical sight in the cities and large towns, but even the smallest villages.  This place, Guadalix de la Sierra, is somewhere inbetween, but what is clear is that, come midday on almost any given weekend, and you will be hard pressed to find an empty table.  It’s been like that for as long as I can recall.  Just people hanging out and enjoying themselves over the weekend.  There is something essential to it.  Something very Spanish, highly Spanish, immensely Spanish.  No matter where you go, you can find this scene, especially since the smoking law has pushed much of the clientele outdoors regardless of the weather or climate or both.  Life goes on.


October 16, 2012

Images of Spain: The Spanish Flag

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 If you look at the balcony of the building, just any ordinary building in this city, you will spot an unusual sight.  Part of this has to do with my poor photographyship, but also part of the blame can be placed on my mobile phone’s flash, which is about the size of Smint candy.  Even though the camera itself is not bad, the lack of proper lighting makes night shots look about as crappy as this one.  But it served me well, because just as it is a task for you to discern the elements of the Spanish flag in the center of the picture, so is it equally a challenge to find that kind of banner in the center of the country, let alone other parts of the country where strong independent movements are taking greater hold. Here, the absence of national symbols is even more notable since the day I took the gem, last October 12th, Spain was celebrating its “National Holiday”.  No one in Madrid calls it that, it goes by the Puente de Pilar, and there are about half a dozen other names for the day.  Inexplicably, reference to Columbus is all but nonexistent.

    The point is, though, and I think my artistic eye has succinctly captured that, is that pride in Spain as a unified sovereign nation is waning a bit these days.  In Madrid most Spaniards are naturally pro-Spain.  They just don’t go for the flag thing.  Some because it still reminds them of Franco, or so I am told.  Or so I am told.

    The Spanish flag is a symbol of Spain.  Within Spain, it is a symbol of many facets of this nation.  Perched up on the iron rail of balcony in that nameless building on a tired Saturday evening, it is a symbol of loneliness and of being alone in that loneliness, like when you stop to think about how large the universe in comparison to your cell phone camera flash.

      My daughter told me it was time to go home.  “It’s just a flag, Dad.  And in a ridiculous spot.”


October 1, 2012

Filing Your Toenails on a Park Bench in Madrid

The title has nothing to do with the subject whatsoever…but then again, you said it had to.

There are ways of getting ahead in Spain, you just have to be extra patient when it comes to finding what you want, since it rarely comes to you the first time around.  I have a book presentation coming up in a couple of weeks, and the first thing I needed for this to happen was to have the books available  I had always planned on it being in October, with the quirk being that I had2011 inmind.  So some 365 days behind schedule, I was comforted by the fact that the new gym at my school was conceived in the early 90s, and is just now being opened, or that the library next door which was due to receive the local readership six months ago is built but still hollow, with not a single volume within, and nothing in sight.    I feel the warmth of a soul blanket when I see that a new wing at the Niño Jesús Children’s Hospital has been left but a worthless shell for the last, God knows, ten years, and it would seem that completing the structure doesn’t fit the annual calendar for the next decade.  Some might observe that a human with my sensitivity should not harbor such thoughts about a medical center for society’s littlest ones, but they are wrong.  I relish its failures.  They tack on another twenty minutes of sleep at night.

         Yeap.  I could proudly say that by sitting down to sign some books a solar year later I was actually proving to many that things could be done expeditiously when you put your mind to it.

         One factor inhibiting progress was actually making my work available to the general public.  A physical version of it.  Not the digital dumpy formats that no one wants.  I don’t blame them.  Ever see a Kindle.  It’ll drive you mad.  Plus the Spanish just like to have that volume in their hand, even if they have no intention of reading your book.

         So, I decided to get a whole bunch of books from theUnited Statesand market them here.  Why the big shipping?  Easy, it was more inexpensive to have them printed inSouth Carolina, and somewhere around there, and ship them over here than actually have them printed inSpain.  By a long shot.  Consider this:

         If I want to buy my own book, without the royalties, obviously, Bubok inSpainoffers it to me for something horrendous like 10 euros.  If I decided to do the same in the States, it comes to $3.40.  Yes, that’s less than three euros when the conversion is carried out.  Then I can dump another ton into two-day express service to my doorstep, and it still comes to a little over 4 euros per unit.

    To be continued.