Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Archive for the ‘Madrid’ Category

Madrid

April 21, 2014

Madrid, Mon Amour

Tags: , , ,

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

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

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

Madrid,Spain

January 6, 2014

Cheers for Fears

Tags: ,

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

Tags: , ,

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.

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. 

Madrid,Uncategorized,What's happening in Madrid

September 21, 2013

A Relaxing Cup of Café con Leche

Tags: , , , ,

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.

 

Madrid

September 14, 2013

The Gift of English

Tags: , ,

I have always thought that as an English teacher, in addition to being a writer, there is a whole slew of imaginative ways to experience English.  Some are already out there, but every day new ones crop up, proving that just when you think you have thought of everything, some bright soul comes up with a different and original approach.

Here’s a great idea for people looking to both learn and, especially, enjoy English.  It’s called “The Gift of English” and it offers special events and unique gifts all done in that language which has been the source of dismay for the Spanish throughout the generations.  The first gathering is a breakfast coming up on Sunday, October 6.  Learn more about it and everything else that the Gift of English has available.  I don’t know of anything like it in Madrid, so give it a try.

Images of Spain,Madrid,Twenty-Five Years and Still Running

June 30, 2013

Great Spanish Inventions 2: The Chupa Chups

Tags: , , ,

I bet you thought it was going to happen.  I bet you thought I was going to let it happen.  Yeah, right!

     Go an entire month without posting a single…well…post?  That’s how shaky things have been.  They can sake, as long as they don’t topple.

     It almost happened, but just like paying taxes on the final day, which happens to be tomorrow and I’ll tell you about that later, I am down to the wire, but in time.  But in time.  But in time.

     Oh, I haven’t forgotten.

     Now, this was what I was going to say.  Yet again, in the 20th Century,Spainwould shake the very foundations of the scientific and technological  world with and bequeath to modern society an invention so profound that its effects are still being felt by me today. Literally.

            It’s the Chupa Chups, the Spanish version of the lollipop, and I just happened to have one in my mouth as we speak.  That’s how recent its reverberations can be felt.  It’s a cherry-flavored one and it’s been pretty good for the first thirty seconds, but now I am getting a little tired of it and wish do away with it elegantly like tossing it over the balcony.

       I even took a picture of it seconds before its execution.  Its death.  I placed it on a nice bare background for minimalist effect and artistic simplicity representing the futility of life as a sucker.

       The Chupa Chups is almost round like a globe, though it has a thicker band protruding around its equator.  You’ll have to excuse the imagery.  This product makes up the second tine of the great trident of Spanish inventions that I have heard about so many times throughout my life here.  The others are the modern submarine and the mop and bucket, if you haven’t been following this fascinating series.

            When I first heard this bit of trivia, I expressed my admiration out of kindness and politeness, because it was quaint, and because anyone who openly claims with pride that their country boldly ventured where no candy maker had before, or so they say, certainly garners my praise.

       I say that’s sweet, no pun intended, and move on. Then after hearing it for the tenth time, I begin to wonder just what kind of information is meted out in those social studies classes, because it’s nice to know that the Chupa Chups has its origins in the Iberian Peninsula, it’s another thing that it should earn such an honored spot in the kingdom of technological advancement.  It’s a fine contribution to society, especially for those in the dental service sector, but no more so than thousands of others.  Robert Kearn ofDetroit,Michigan, invented the intermittent windshield wiper back in1963, aprodigious creation from a driver’s point-of-view, and yet most Americans do not know this, just like they are about the vast majority of human ingenuity.

            But there you have it, a world where even the simplest things can share the limelight.

            As to be expected, the ubiquitous lollipop did not see earthly light for the first time in Iberian lands.  And, as to be expected, it is nearly impossible to determine just where it did.

            The modern version of the lollipop has been attributed to a man named George Smith, who owned a candy company inNew Haven,Connecticut, my homestate.  That really is a blow to the Spanish.  By the way, New Haven also is said to be the birthplace of the hamburger, not dreamed up by some kooky-looking clown, so it should be noted that this otherwise discreet coastal city on the East Coast of the United States noted otherwise for its fine university, Yale, has also been one of the most fertile creators of modern pop gastronomy.

            Chances are, though, the lollipop had been invented decades, if not centuries, before as its concept, eating without getting your hands all dirty, is hardly a novel one.  Haven’t you ever seen those Middle Ages movies with the Vikings plunging their swords into chunks of the roasted meat the size of footballs?

            It was apparently this issue that prompted our Spanish hero, Enric Bernat, to come up with a similar answer to the age-old issue of what to do about the children tackling with sticky food.  He had witnessed a mother scolding her child for getting his hands all messy after a bout with some sweets.  For the most part, this has always been a debatable motive for telling your kid off, because most candy is simply not designed with a kid’s mind in mind. They kind of assume the little one will handle the goodie responsibly, which is really asking a lot of any tot.  So, the kid is given free reign to behave under the toughest of circumstances and gets told off to boot.

            To resolve this problem.  Bernant devised a candy which kept the child’s hands away from the cause of all the stress.  Then he took his newfangled treat to stores all over the country requesting that it be placed on the counter right next to the register and, yes, within reach of a child.  This was a major breakthrough in marketing.

            The campaign paid off, and Bernant’s idea quickly became a hit and sales rocketed.  One source says that the annual production is about 12 million per year, which comes in at about 33,000 lollipops a day.  You would think that it would cover costs, but apparently not.  The company closed down a big plant inAsturiasin 2011 and there is only one left in the country.  These things out to be protected by the national heritage board.

Madrid

March 31, 2013

Spanish Sayings: Cuando en marzo mayea, en mayo marzea

Tags: , , ,

There is a saying in Spanish about springtime weather which goes “when in March it Mays, in May it Marches.”  Maybe I am just one of those souls who are subject to the power suggestion, but I am inclined to believe that, over the years, the meteorological theorem for the most parts holds true. And presumably the opposite is true under normal circumstances.

      Well, I can promise you that we can expect some great weather in May because it has been about as marchy a March as you can get.  Rain, rain and more rain, with a few gusty days to boot.  Part of this has to do with the fact that it is Semana Santa and it always rains at Semana Santa.  The clouds wait for the first pasos to emerge from the church threshold and, boom, your average healthy downpour.

       This year the precipitation has been particularly abundant.  In a sense this is great because Spain is a land which is almost never quite satisfied in terms of rainfall.  And once the dry summers drift in, there is no hope until fall again.  That’s why winter rain and snowfall are vital, and this year has been particularly positive in this sense.  The Sierra de Madrid has been smothered with a thick layer of snow.  Some may be surprised to read that there are mountains so close to the capital, aren’t we supposed to be in the open plains?  Despite Henry Higgins’ little rhymes to get a person to speak the way no sane human would want to, Spain, while home to large stretches of open plains, also happens to be the second most mountainous country in Europe, after Switzerland.  I am dead serious.  The Sistema Central, or Central Mountain Range, a chain that forms a bumpy southwest-to-northeast scar across the heart of the land, and dividesSpaininto basically two major climates.  They aren’t the Alps but they’re no slouches either.  Many peaks soar above the 7000ft mark, higher than anything you would find east of the Mississippi and the tallest in Madrid, Peñalara, stands at just a hair below 8,000ft, making it in my opinion, officially rugged in nature and not to be taken lightly by inexperienced climbers, especially during the winter.  In fact, two people had to be rescued just the other day when they got disoriented and had to spend the night near the summit in a makeshift igloo. And if I recall correctly, several unwary and unfortunate hikers have lost their lives up there.

Here is some physical proof.

This is a shot of the pine forest near the top of the Navafría pass.  It’s still about a 1,000ft below the highest point up there called El Nevero.  I topped it last summer in August, and I can promise you that even then it was somewhat chilly during the day.  There was a chance I was going to head up there in March.  Snow-whitened escarpments are a habitual part of the landscape at this time of year, and it isn’t unusual for patches of the frozen precipitation to be seen well into June.

So, as I was saying, the precipitation has been outrageously plentiful and the reservoirs are full to the hilt.  Capacity, which, you might be interested to know, is about 87%. It sounds a little odd, I agree, kind of like perfect unemployment rate being somewhere in the neighborhood of 4%, but it is necessary to avoid a sudden rush of water and having it all spill over in an uncontrolled manner.  That way, the region has some leeway.  Still, it isn’t often we can enjoy this much hydro-comfort and there are some who criticize the authorities for not having set aside more room to increase the supply, because, as anyone who has lived here long knows, dry spells can go one for a long time in this country.  For those of you who are boring like me and get a kick out of following these things, you can go to the Canal Isabel II website and get a daily update and the levels, reservoir by reservoir.

            So, if Spanish sayings are anything to go by, we can expect a great May to enjoy the best springtime in this city can offer the visitor and resident alike.

Madrid,Travel

February 27, 2013

Touring Madrid 1, Part 2

If there is something to say about these massive gatherings, it’s that they are a great opportunity to walk through the main avenues of Madrid unhindered by traffic.  You can shout here and there in angry protest and then enjoy the sights in between.  Ask an anarchist to take a picture of you and your loved one in front of the Palacio de Comunicaciones.  Dance to the rabid beats of the bongos.  As your nearest riot police for directions to the Plaza Mayor.

     I returned to the center just in time for the 23-F demonstration to kick off.  This day was chosen in part because it was Saturday; and if you don’t know, Saturday afternoons are almost always the times for the biggest protests because that’s the only real chance for most people to take their grievances to the streets.  Sometimes they pick Sunday mornings, but it’s rarer, as people most often want to get some rest or go for an aperitivo.  And on only two occasions that I can think of, they were held during the week. One was for the assassination of Miguel Ángel Blanco, on a Monday in July, and the other was a Friday, March 12, the day after theMadrid train bombings.

            But it is generally believed that if you want a lot of people to attend, Saturday afternoon is your moment.  Anyone in this city knows that.  That’s what expectations were high.  Going to a protest may not be mainstream tourism, but it just might be an alternative way to discover what is going on in this country.  If you have a hotel room at the Palace with a view of the Plaza de Neptuno, you may not have a choice, but otherwise you might spend a weekend in the capital in the bars and forget there is a huge crisis afflicting the country.

            That’s where you have the political left in this country going all out to blame the severe recession on the present government which is currently being ripped for a scandal caused by the former Treasurer.  Embezzlement, laundering, payoffs, and all the good stuff were on the agenda.  And as the country’s economy still wallows in a directionless motion, the thought the leaders were hording all the cash, did not sit well.

       I’m trying to stay out of politics, but I should add thatSpain’s woes cannot be attributed to any one party, and the current allegations are just that, suspicions yet to be confirmed, but suffice it to say it is just the latest in a long line of frustrations which have wearied this country.  They have wearied those who follow the weary.

            In any event, there was this big event calling all of the citizens to become a part of the “rising tide” against the injustices of the current situation.  It was one of those Bastille moments; the WinterPalaceconfrontations, cavalry aside.  On top of that, February 23rd was astutely chosen because it is the anniversary of 1981 Spanish Coup D’état attempt.  Then, and I can get to that one day, members of the Spanish right barged into the parliament and tried to stop democracy in its tracks.  It was a major flop, thank God.  Anyway, everything was very symbolic.  Democracy prevailed, and so the opposition forces 32 years later felt it was the right time to rally the citizens again.

       Well, it kind of worked.  There were thousands of people there.  Ten of thousands.  My final estimate ran as close as 100,000, but that may be generous.  It can be so hard to tell.  That is a sizeable number, but even from close up, even in the very center near the Plaza de Neptuno, one had the feeling we weren’t jammed pack.  Plus, these days, 100,000 is not the number you want to really send a message.   Every two weeks 100,000 fans pay plenty of money to watchBarcelonaplay football.  Failing to match the number for free in the name of social outcry does make the turnout seem a little disappointing.  I can see couple of reasons why, quite possibly the biggest being that it was a general upheaval against the mismanagement of politicians in general, but a unilateral swipe at the ruling party, which is legitimate if that is what you wish.  But don’t expect the other side to join in.

            More concerning was the low number of young people there.  That doesn’t mean they were totally absent.  But I expected to see more.  I mean, according to the statistics, about 50% are unemployed.  They are so often mentioned as a mainstay of disgruntledness. Shouldn’t they have been out in legion making their voices heard?  In theory, yes.

       All in all, 100,000 is almost a paltry number given the current situation.  100,000 is the number of fans who flock toBarcelona’s Nou Camp soccer stadium every Sunday.  And they have to pay a pretty penny to get in.  That makes attracting 100,000 for a free event in the name of social outcry seems less impressive, given the current state of things; given what I thought was the current state.  But maybe I was misgiven.