Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


October 3, 2015

The Eye of the Hurricane and the Navel of the World

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The weekend is in full swing and it looks like the United States is going to be spared of a major hurricane, the change in outlook being the result of one of the most spectacular hurricane forecasting debacles in recent times.  I am fully aware of the complications involved in accurately predicting of the weather, and tropical storms are notoriously shifty creatures, but what made Hurricane Joaquin  especially befuddling was the fact that these guys couldn’t even get it remotely right with 48 hours of the actual events. It was as if they had their eyes glued to the computer screens but forgot to look out the window.

     The storm was supposed to stay as a harmless tropical storm and roam far from any land, except for maybe Bermuda, but that’s pretty far from any land anyway.   But it turned straight south all of the sudden and more or less came to a crawl over some sparsely populated islands in the Bahamas.  Those poor people went from thinking a menacing storm would float well north of them to becoming enveloped in one of the worst systems of the season.  And instead of taking on a few hours of pesky light hurricane forces, the cyclone quickly intensified into a only major hurricane this year.

      Then, instead of making a hook shot at the Eastern Seaboard, the way most models foresaw, the storm is now slipping further away from the coast just a two days before it was supposed to arrive.  The meteorologists were off by a mile.  A 1,000 miles to be more precise.  America’s weather technology took a shellacking almost as bad as the Caribbean itself.  Most of their models even remotely saw the storm turning into anything, and they completely missed the correct path.  These are our storms.  We’ve been dealing with them since the dawn of formal meteorological forecasting.  Ironically, it’s the European and the U.K. models which time and time again gets it right.  One avid fan of these storms claimed they look at a larger picture rather just key one a few features.  They listen to the whole orchestra to see where the music is going, not to just one clarinet player.

     To make matters worse, the only reason this was news was because of the threat to American interests, but hardly anyone even mentioned the fate of those sparsely populated islands, though populated all the same.  Hurricanes tend to barrel through violently, but it doesn’t take them long to move on.  Thank God, because no one would want that kind of wind around for a long time.  Buildings can withstand terrific wind speeds of 125 mph.  They just might not fare as well if they have to do the same for twelve hours.  Or 24 hours, for that matter. And no one should have to ever endure that kind of horror.  Well, that’s what those poor souls down there populating those sparsely populated islands have done, and I, for one, fear for their fate, even though hardly anyone in the media does.

     After all, when the Navel of the World is just a few hundred miles away, being in the eye of the hurricane means nothing.  You might as well be flicked off the surface of the body life some unwanted bug.


September 20, 2015

Files, Feuds and Funerals 5

Dad wasn’t a huge pizza fan, he preferred burgers, but he was known to chomp down a good slice when the opportunity arose.  My brother Pat had decided to get two pies for home since no one here was in any real mood to start cooking.  Eli’s, seemingly the only real decent restaurant around Hamden, as far as standard American fare went, provided the goods and got the job done.  I really love American pizza.  It’s the dough, I think, or the cheese.  It’s so thin.

    I was snacking away at a triangle of sausage pizza and listening to mom as she told me how dad stopped talking for ever.

     He was reading to her a book called the Tudors.  I think it was more historically accurate than the show on TV which captured so much audience thanks to its gratuitous sex scenes.   Dad was asking her to lie down so he could go back to reading.  I can’t recall what part of the book they were in.  I can’t recall her ever telling me.  Maybe she couldn’t recall either.  Then he suddenly just stopped talking.   And he looked at her with begging eyes.  And gripped her hand.  They called one brother and then a sister and both insisted they call 911.  Call 911. The ambulance didn’t take very long to come, apparently, I wasn’t there to greet it or its occupants.  My mom and sister were anguished because they felt they hadn’t acted quickly enough, but I don’t know.  I think they did a fine job. Couldn’t have been more expeditious.  The stroke performed to T, too.  It just operated faster.  Sometimes there’s really just nothing you can do.  There really is nothing you can do.

     Then she went on to tell the story about another brother wanting to go to the Getty Museum in California because we had some cousin who was curator there, but it turned out he had left the position in 2000, or some 15 years before, and I figured that chances were he wouldn’t be available.

     Maybe it was the jetlag.  I hadn’t slept for nearly thirty-five hours and facts and figures were becoming blurred in my head.   My father stopped talking.  All of a sudden.  That’s all I could remember.

     I let those thought stew in my head as I finished off my fourth slice of za.  Why couldn’t they make pizza this good in Spain?  They make lots of it.  It just ain’t the same.  Eli’s didn’t start out making Italian food.  Across the street, the flagship restaurant catered to your usual notch-above burgers and a island bar lined with TVs for sports lovers.  There’s a sense it’s there to entice students from the local university, Quinnipiac, but my guess is that the prices don’t match the target customer. The pizza joint covers that department.  If I had to guess, I’d say that the owners chose the name because their establishment is on Whitney Street, one of the main arteries leading out of New Haven to Hamden and beyond.  That road gets its name from Eli Whitney, former resident of New Haven and inventor of the cotton gin, a machine designed to separate the cottonseed from from the fluffy material itself…apparently one of the most painstaking tasks in all of agriculture.  It was also extremely time-consuming.  So much so that plantation owners were beginning to abandon the use practice of forced human slave labor, not out of moral disgust obviously, but rather because it was no longer cost efficient.  Whitney’s cotton gin changed that, unfortunately.  While still in need of a great deal of perfecting, it did boost the production of clean, seedless cotton by tenfold, thereby giving it the breath of fresh air it needed to resuscitate.  Instead of free labor, it intensified it.  To this day, Whitney’s invention has been cited as one of the reasons the South continued to defend the horrid custom, which led to a war the caused the death of some 600,000 people.  Certainly not something you’d like to put on your résumé.  Whitney, by the way, came from one of the oldest families in New England.  He died in New Haven, at the age of 57, of prostate cancer, though I don’t think much of the medical world could actually determine that at the time.  Back then, they probably just said he died.

     I finished my pìzza and announced I was no longer available for conversation, as I would soon be falling asleep.  It was time for bed and I settled down to a long summer’s night of cable TV.


September 12, 2015

A Mal Tiempo, Buena Cara

Hace varios años yo pertenecía a un grupo de élite en el cuerpo de enseñanza al ser un profesor nativo de inglés con magisterio.  Vamos, estaba más solicitado que George Clooney en Alegoría un sábado por la noche.  Pero últimamente, con tanto extranjero consiguiendo el título universitario necesario pasar impartir clase, me he convertido en un chico del montón.  Para colmo, este año estoy dando lengua española a chicos nativos del español.  Hay que ver.

       En fin.  A veces pienso que más que instruir sobre morfemas deritativos, estoy enseñando morales delictivos.   Veamos el ejemplo del primer tema, que se titula igual que este post.  La unidad esta llena de referencias sobre cómo ver las cosas del lado positivo.  Y para ilustrar semejante idea, incluye un extracto de la novela “Tom Sawyer” que habla de la famosa escena de la valla en la que el niño travieso consigue que todos sus compañeros hagan el trabajo por él, con el añadido que le regalan algo para poder hacerlo.  En resumen, les estafaba, haciéndoles creer que estaban haciendo una cosa divertida (es decir, realizar una tarea que le correspondía a otro, sin cobrar) e incluso dar algo de propiedad a cambio.   ¡Joder!  Me dije.  Como la mismísima vida aquí en España.  Ya lo pillo.  Es que llevamos todos estos años educándolos así.

       Encima, Tom debería sentirse orgulloso de haber sido capaz de cambiar de actitud y convertir una situación desesperada, como puede ser tener que pintar una valla de treinta metros por dos metros de alto, en un éxito total, palabras textuales, mediante una genialidad llamada “la picardía”, española, añaden algunos con orgullo.  Solo al final se nos invita a reflexionar y decir si Tom lo podía haber hecho mejor.  ¿En qué sentido?  ¿Ayudar?    No me jodas.  ¿Qué te parece si cumple el castigo solito, en vez de conseguir que sus amigos lo realicen por él (con numerosos beneficios materiales)?  El problema es, la mayoría de las estafas, siempre que estén bien hechas por supuesto, son genialidades.

        Pues nada.  Dentro de 30 años cuando uno de mis alumnos se encuentra delante de un juez declarándose inocente ante las acusaciones de haber embolsado 33 mil millones de euros de los contribuyentes para comprarse un chalet en los alpes, un bungalo en Bora Bora, por no hablar del asunto de unos amigos que tienen una constructora que acaba de hacer un aeropuerto en Cáceres, alegando que será el perfecto lugar para turistas que pretenden viajar entre Portugal y Madrid.  Todos lo delitos han sido obras de arte, obras maestras, fruto de la imaginación y genialidad.  Antes no tenía ni un duro, y acabó teniendo una fortuna.  Antes de ser arrestado, por supuesto.

         Ese mismo hombre dirá, “Pero, señorilla, en mi clase de profe Brian, me dijo que Tom Sawyer supo poner buena cara a mal tiempo.”  A que reconocer que sería un alumno bien atento y aplicado.


September 9, 2015

Files, Feuds and Funerals 3

Whenever I arrive in the United States, I am never really sure just what kinds of changes I will encounter.  I’m sometimes afraid I will return one day and hardly recognise this country at all.

     I have to admit, however, that I am comforted by the assurance that there are certain aspects of life here that will never, ever change for as long as the troposphere allows people to survive on the planet.  One of the most persistent traditions in the New York area is the traffic jam on the Van Wyck Expressway.  I guess the term “expressway” was coined to convey intent rather than actual confluence.  Yes, the vehicles come together…but then they stop.  This 14-mile stretch of road has been home to fifty years of continuous backup. While there are times when I have been known to exaggerate a point or two, in this case I shit you not.  It’s like watching decades of Blade Runner. I can’t recall there ever being a time when my car didn’t have to come to a complete standstill at least once.

    The driver of the car that came to pick me up, a friendly man from Uruguay who had lived in America since the 80s and was planning on returning in October for a wedding, and it was stop and go, for a half a mile or so, while we exchanged impressions about the heat, which had been horrendous in Madrid that year.  At least it was dry, I told him, and he agreed it was better.  Somehow, though, he managed to thread us through much of the sluggish transit without too much delay.  Then, as usual, we picked up speed and coasted by Citi Field and the New York Times.  The Lincoln bobbed up and down over the potholes with muted thumps, another timeless piece of local music.

    Once we got to the Whitestone Bridge, I looked left because the span affords one of the most magnificent views of the New York skyline that a person can have.  Expecting to find the usual cutout of a string of concrete, iron and glass mountains at the lower end, capped by the the new World Trade Center, then blocks of foothills before the Empire State Building crowned the lofty middle of the island, I was struck by the presence of a needle-like stick towering above what I would guess to be Central Park.  Towering above the city.  Towering above the Empire State Building.  It was so skinny, it looked as if it would blow over in a breeze.

    “That wasn’t there last year, was it?”  I asked in Spanish thinking he might appreciate my effort.

    “No, it wasn’t,” he replied in English.  I guess he didn’t share my enthusiasm, so I returned to my native tongue.

“It’s not something Trump is building,” I furthered disparagingly.

“Nope. Not this time.  It was built for the Russians.”

    I was supposed to be going to Russia the very next day.  Only something extreme, like my father suffering a stroke, could have changed that.

    “What do you mean it was built for the Russians?”  Hadn’t we just sent our latest and most sophisticated warplanes over to Europe to make Putin tremble in his shoes, why would we be dethroning the city’s most famous landmark to cater to their whims?  That couldn’t be right.  And it wasn’t, really.  47 Park Avenue, as it has been plainly dubbed, has become the tallest residential building in the United States, and apparently the third highest overall.  The reason the Russians are implicated in this all is that they are supposed to be the only ones who can afford to pay for the astronomical prices being listed, especially for the upper floors.  Apparently, one flat per story.  And one story per flat.

     “I can’t believe anyone would even allow that to happen in that part of New York.  I don’t even think Trump would be so sacrilegious.”

     What Trump was doing instead was build a golf course on top of an old dump. You can see it right next to the Whitestone Bridge toll booth.  It’s called “Trump Links”.  Every time I think of links golf I think of Payne Stewart, the player who wore knickerbockers, a vest and a cap.  In 1999, Payne’s learjet depressurized with him and four others on board.  They all died, but the plane kept going in the same direction until it ran out of fuel and nosedived into a remote field in South Dakota.  That’s a fairly far away place for anyone to perish.  Thank God he was already dead. I guess.


September 8, 2015

Forensic Files, Family Fueds and Funerals 2

If someone were to stop any mother or father on a street and asked them just what they considered to be the most important innovation in travel, most would probably say seatbelts, airbags, and individualized entertainment screens on long distance airlines.  As a result of their creation, childcare suddenly ceased to become an issue since children no longer looked to you for onboard entertainment.  Nor did they look to each other for nonstop bickering to help them pass the time.  Everyone’s needs were tended to and one could safely say that a certain sense of harmony reigned throughout the cabin.  Only the most unsuspecting advances in technology have made the world a better place.

     I actually came upon my first personal IFE screen on an Air France flight I took all by myself, without my daughters, that is, so I couldn’t fully exploit all of its benefits.  Iberia was sorely behind the times in this department and it seemed that its only in-flight entertainment they were offering was a chance to watch the duty-free cart get pushed up and down the aisle.

       It wasn’t until a Delta flight, just like the one we was on now, that this dream was fully realized.  In part.  My girls were ecstatic about plopping on their headsets and crossing the ocean to the joy of watching endless episodes of Glee.  They could barely contain their emotions.  Neither could I.  We hugged each effusively, but for very different reasons.  Then, came the “in part” part of the story.  It turned out that some of the individual systems weren’t working so the flight attendant announced they would be resetting the system to see if all would return to normal.  I could immediately sense where this was taking us all.  I wanted to stand up and scream “Don’t do it! This isn’t a goddamn bowling alley!  Resetting doesn’t do anything!”

       But I was wrong.  It did do something.  It turned off all the screens…for the remainder of the flight.  There were seven and a half hours left.  It ended up being one of the longest flights I could recall.  The plane moved forward so slowly, it thought it was going to have to stop to refuel in Newfoundland.  And, what was worse, not only were my daughters left with their personal IFE; they were pissed too.

        This time, there were no unpleasant surprises.  Everything pretty much worked the way you’d expect them to, except for maybe the fact the tactile screens were not what I would call particularly sensitive to human touch, and you had the feeling you were poking the person in front of you in the back of the neck.

         Aside from that, things went smoothly enough.  I picked up a few inspirational tips from TED TV, futilely tried to reign as champ of the in-cabin trivial game contest, and then settled down with some long documentaries.  One was about the eccentric managers of the Who, another told the story of a celebrated group of California sessions musicians in the 1960s known as the Wrecking Crew, and the last took us through the life of the now deceased film critic, Roger Ebert, who departed from this world after a long, painful, losing bout against cancer.  In the end, he couldn’t even speak.

           By the end, he couldn’t even speak.  I think, and I could swear this, the plane arrived before I had finished.


September 7, 2015

Forensic Files, Family Feuds and Funerals 1

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No matter how many times I’ve floated over the Atlantic Ocean at inhuman speeds, in order to be ferried from Madrid to New York, and we are talking dozens of trips at this point in my life, the flight from continental Europe to the northeast corridor of the United States never ceases to bring me to the brink over either slipping into an irreversible bout of depression or doing something juvenile but nonetheless satisfactory like stick my foot out in the aisle as a young child walked by.  And, what is worse, the flight crew simply don’t offer enough wine to ameliorate the situation.

       It’s not just that extra hour-and-a-half difference in the duration of the crossing.  That’s a lie.  It pretty much has everything to do with the extra hour and a half.  Sometimes it’s two.   The increased time is a result of the direction of the wind, in this case it pushes against the nose of the plane with such force it literally prevents it from advancing easily; but a surprisingly large number of people believe that it is the turning of the earth that causes this difference.

       On a very superficial level, this sounds as if it could make sense, but simple observation rather quickly dismantles this theory for a couple of reasons.  One, and this is a big reason, is that objects that become airborne don’t separate from the earth’s rotation because the air in which they are sailing is rotating at the same time.  If not, something as harmless as, say, a grain of rice, might suddenly become a potentially lethal projectile as it hurdles at no less that 1,040 kph against a wall or, what is worse, someone’s chest.  And let’s not even try to imagine the effects of tossing pizza dough.

       That doesn’t happen, obviously, and we can thank the troposphere for it.  That is the name of the lowest layer of the earth’s atmosphere and it’s this concentration of mixed gases that, in addition to keeping our bodies from bludgeoned by simple beach ball, provides other universally accepted benefits such as the oxygen we breathe and or the protection needed to prevent our skin from falling off.

        Most objects stick within the realms of the troposphere, even planes, though they often reach the upper edge that joins with the next level up, known as the stratosphere.  Somewhere in the 10,000 to 11,000 meter range.

         I mention this, of course, fully aware that if there is one thing that isn’t easy to determine, it’s the actual width of the troposphere.  A quick googling for an image of the word evokes scores of charts that map out the different sections of the atmosphere, most of which also indicate their size in kilometers.  At first glance, my impression was that the jury was still out on the matter.  Experts knew just about everything on this matter except for what I had figured would be as standard as establishing the temperature at which water freezes.   I mean, given the nature of the information I was looking for and the technology available at this stage, you’d think some kind of reliable consensus would be met, if only for the sake of pride in scientific accuracy, but apparently that was wishful thinking.  A brief look at the numbers clearly illustrates this point:

          Chart 1 – 11km

          Chart 2 – 7 to 16km

          Chart 3 – 20 km

          Chart 4 – 10 km

          Chart 5 – 12 km

          Chart 6 – 11 km

          Chart 7 – 7 km

          Chart 8 – 10 km

          Chart 9 – 9.5 km

          So, according to this data, that means something in the neighborhood of a 65% variation in size, which personally seems a little unprofessional.  It’s as if I told someone the distance between Madrid and Segovia is about 80 to 130 kilometers away.  It’s actually 95.

         Further investigation cleared up this disparity.  It turns out there isn’t a fixed width of the troposphere, but rather it varies depending on, among other things, it’s position over the planet.  It is svelter at the poles and more bulgy where the girth is widest…the equator.  The makers of the charts just threw out a few figures, some more random than others.

          I didn’t know this as we departed Spanish air space.  All I was considering was whether or not I should watch my first episode of the Walking Dead or not on the tiny screen lodged in the back of the seat in front of me.

           An entire ocean stretched out ahead of us.  An eternity of time.  It was like a massive River Styx whose banks had been pushed 3,000 miles apart.   On the other side, in a small struggling New England costal city called New Haven, saved almost solely by the fact it was the home to Yale University, my father lay in a hospital bed in the intensive care unit and was hooked up to every possible machine that would keep him alive.

          He had suffered a stroke two days before and had just three more to live.


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.