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Images of Spain

February 28, 2014

IMAGES OF SPAIN: The “telefonillo”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         4)  Neither side can hear the other.

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

          “¿Diga?”

          “Who’s this?”

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

           “I’m in 5B.”

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

         “Can you open me up?”

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

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

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

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

Images of Spain,Spain

January 2, 2014

Shake Your Booty

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

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

 

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

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

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

June 30, 2013

Great Spanish Inventions 2: The Chupa Chups

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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.

Images of Spain

May 18, 2013

Images of Spain: The Fried Egg

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Fried Eggs.  Here are two of them.  A pair.  Un buen par, as they say inMadrid.  It never ceases to amaze me just how easy it is to make jokes with eggs inSpain.  “Huevos” (eggs in Spanish) are a slang term for testicles, the equivalent in English of “balls”, and God knows their use, of the words that is, contributes plenty of mirth to the Spaniards, almost on a daily basis.  Every time the word is employed, and I mean every time, even in its real sense, rare is the occasion that someone doesn’t slip across a sly comment or a furtive look.  And everyone laughs as if it’s the first time they have ever heard the reference.

      Just today, just this very day, one colleague asked another if he had any sound effects for a play we are organizing and the other replied “un huevo” which literally means “an egg” but can be translated vulgarly as “a shitload”.  Actually he said, “I have an egg.”

       And the other invariably replied, “You have just one egg,” suggesting that the other possessed just one testicle, not that he owned a lot of sound effects material.  To which the other replied with a chuckle:

        “Oh, yeah,” returned the first in a cocky but friendly manner.  “That’s all I need.”  Meaning he was so manly he didn’t need two.  Then we all laughed, me included.

         Now, this same exchange of witty remarks could have taken place five, ten, fifteen or even twenty years ago, and the results would have been the same.  And from what I can tell, the jokes will go on for decades to come.

        Trust me, any Spaniard who sees this photo is going to think of reproductive organs before realizing that it’s just a plate of food.  The culture of the “huevo” lends itself to a lot of conversation. It’s a good thing to know should you ever engage in an extended stay here.

        But, in addition to gonads, the dish itself is a cultural oddity.  To begin with, it is rarely breakfast food, unless you are a guest at one of those hotels where they serve those meals that so enamor tourists all over the world.  Even the Spanish, who normally eschew the massive calorie intake that has garnered fame for morning tables throughout the English-speaking world, have a soft spot for those acres of tables bulging with a sensuous spread of delectables.  In fact, I would be willing to bet that a not-so-insignificant number pay for the room mainly with the incentive of being able to wake up the next morning and immerse themselves in one of the greatest pleasure known to man: the breakfast buffet.

            But limited to the restrictions of a Spanish diet in a Spanish home, don’t count on starting the day to a toast and an egg done easy over accompanied by cereal and a pot of hot coffee.  Just not gonna happen.

            Fried eggs exist, by all means.  But expect them for lunch or even dinner.  My first came for supper, traditionally a light meal here.  I did raise and eyebrow the first time a plate was placed before me.  It was ten at night and I hadn’t quite prepared myself for the fare. I didn’t take long though.

        Kids love and can pretty much go them at any time.  They are especially fond of them with chunks of paprika packed chorizo and bundles of oil soaked fries.  Does atrocities to your system, but there is no doubt that it’s top-notch comfort food.

            Another surprise is how you make them.  You would think that they would adhere to the basic laws of eggdom; afterall, just how many ways can you fry an egg?  But, I can assure you that the technique is entirely different.  First of all, they don’t do the deed with butter, but rather you fill a small frying pan with a healthy layer of olive oil.  You heat up the oil and plop and egg into the middle.  And while it crackles away, you take a spoon and you flick drops of the hot oil on the top of the egg so that cooks on that side.  This is a very old technique. For proof, take a look at this famous painting by Velázquez.

There’s the woman; and there’s the fried egg adrift in a sea of oil.

         The amount of liquid used to sizzle the egg has been reduced to less industrial quantities, but the essence of this Spanish technique is still true today, and it manages to extract a deliciously oily flavor which blends perfectly with the egg and a touch of salt.  The slightly bitter olive oil makes a huge difference.  You can reach for a loaf of baguette, rip off a chunk and poke at the yolk without fear.  The rest you should pretty much know what to do.

          All you need is some huevos.  Of course, that joke is not funny at all…unless you are Spanish.

Images of Spain

May 7, 2013

Images of Spain: La fregona (the mop)

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I have felt for a long time that one of the best ways to learn about another country’s culture is to acquire little by little the common knowledge known by the everyday citizen.  I was tempted to say originally that knowledge that every schoolchild knows, “In 1492,Columbussailed the ocean blue” and all that;  but sometimes that is a dangerous thing.  Once, I read the results of a study on American high school students general understanding of general knowledge  and decided I needed to be more prudent with my assertions.   Consider, for example, the question “When didColumbusdiscoverAmerica?”  The correct answer in the multiple-choice quiz was “Before1776”, which gave the test-taker 284-year leeway for good measure; a generous margin of error when you think about it.  Even then, only 35% managed to get that one right.  Two-thirds were unable to come within three centuries of the truth.

       I somehow doubt that things have gotten much better since then, so I will broaden my assumptions a bit.  In any event, what I am referring to is the kind of knowledge that is thrown around freely and taken as fact regardless of whether or not it is true.  No one disputes it, which is true of most information, and they perpetuate the word by propagating it throughout the land.  They pass it on to friends and family.  That’s where lore comes from.  It’s where legend is born.

       Take inventions, for example.  Being the birthplace of a particular invention can often be a source of pride.  Back in America, we are taught that Edison came up with the first electric light bulb and the phonograph, to name just two, and Bell (while Scottish) had been living in America for years when he devised and patented his telephone; and let’s not forget the Wright brothers, whose fleeting departure from the earth upon a wafer-light aircraft proved once and for all that motorized flight could be achieved.  Of course, all of these landmarks in technology have been debated by those who feel others were the true firsts, and we cannot leave out the scores of anonymous figures whose minor technical contributions led to the great breakthroughs.  But I am not hear to talk about that; I am hear to discuss just what conventional wisdom says and what it might say about each culture.

            So, allow me to repeat this.  Take inventions, for example.  Take inventions inSpain.  When asked to name any inventions that this country has produced in, say, the last two centuries, invariably 90% will come up with the following list, in any order, mind you: The submarine, the mop (fregona), and the Chupa-chups lollipop.

            “Really?” I believe I said upon hearing such ostentation for the first time and trying to think of what to say without sounding rude or condescending.  “That’s great.  I didn’t know that.”

            You have to watch your step when confronted with these situations.  Laughing won’t get you anywhere unless you are well-acquainted with the culture and the people you are talking to. If not, you may find them using the mop in an inventive way on your body.   Even when you try to question the truth to any degree, you have to take care as to how you express it.  I once mentioned to a friend from Cartegena, while in Cartegena, that the first submarine was really invented inAmericaback in the Revolutionary War.  That was a crock, because the history of underwater vessels goes back at least 150 years before the Continental Army tried to employ one.  But that has never prevented propaganda from getting in the way.

       It was a man-powered ball called The Turtle.  It was meant to sink enemy ships by screwing a hole in the hull and sticking an explosive inside.  The Turtle was shaped like an acorn, and possessed the maneuverability and speed of one, which explains why the endeavor failed. Nonetheless, it was an innovation in warfare that would become extremely effective once the mechanical technology allowed for it.

       My friend was skeptical.  He deftly pointed out that the seacraft I was referring to was not motorized and therefore could not be considered a true submarine.  That was where Peral came into the picture.  His brainchild is considered to be the first fully-operational submarine in history.  My friend had a point so there was no sense in pursing the debate, but it did make me wonder just about what constituted an invention.  The first one, at least.  One of the many manias of mankind is to determine a first for everything.  Many times that date, name or place don’t correspond to the truth, and even sometimes we are fully aware of it.  But that doesn’t stop us from spreading the myth.

       For example, it is now practically accepted that Hyram Bingham did not discover the Lost City of Machu Picchu.  In fact, the ruins which were buried beneath the tropical brush for centuries never probably disappeared from the historical memory of the locals, who apparently knew of its existence.  In the mid-1800s, a German entrepreneur attempted to make a business out of the remains, and in 1903, when the Wright brothers were lifting off the sands of theNorth Carolina beaches, another Peruvian actually engraved his name on one of the rocks as proof of arriving there first.  Bingham didn’t make it there for another decade.  But that doesn’t prevent the world from crediting this man with the highest honor a discoverer could have: discovery.  It is undeniable that he truly appreciated the importance of the find and deserves credit for bringing it to the attention of the rest of the World.  Something similar happened toColumbus.

       The mop is no different.  The concept of a floor swab that has a pole attached to an absorbent base had been around for well over a hundred years, with many improvements being made in the Unite States in the late 19th Century, about 60 years before Manuel Joldán presented his patent inEurope.  And let’s not forget that Mickey Mouse took on hundreds in the move Fantasia, so it is safe to say the objected existed.

       That makes sense because I had trouble imaging that half the world didn’t finally get off its knees from the kitchen floor until the time Ike was president. But then again, Swiss women didn’t receive the vote until the 1970s, so you never know.

       Joldán did not deny this.  In fact, he got the idea from his stay in theUnited Statesas an aeronautic engineer.  He saw its practicality and took it home.  So he can’t get credit in tat sense. What he did do was turn the whole product into one package.  The mop itself, along with the plastic bucket fitted with the meshed wringer fitted into place with which to squeeze out the dirty water.  That was the innovation and quite possibly the difference.  Sort of like the turtle and the Peral’s submarine.

        This neat and tidy design was a rage, and it is said that when Joldán and his associates sold the company in the 1980s, 60 million fregonas had been sold.

             Still, the fact that this goes down as one of the top three never fails to amuse me.  I am sure that Spaniards have come up with creations that compete with some World’s finest, but why the old mop and pail should stand out among the pack is beyond me.  I admire a country who can take national pride in these kinds of objects, though.  I doubt the Americans, English, Germans, French or Italians would ever admit as much.  It would probably be beneath their dignity.   It’s either coming up with the heliocentric theory or nothing. Something essential.

       But the mop is essential.  It is an essential part of every Spanish kitchen.  I don’t know one without it.  To use it is to be not only a part of Spanish history, but also a part of its culture.

      You may feel that I am trying to be particularly provocative by posting a picture like this so close Mother’s Day, but the idea was entirely coincidental.  Who invented Mother’s Day anyway?  When was it invented inSpain?  And if so, did the Spaniards add a touch, like a motor or a set, that makes it so Spanish.  I don’t know yet.  It’s the day that mothers should be truly appreciated.  Are they?  Maybe it’s a legend or maybe it’s true.

Images of Spain

May 3, 2013

Images of Spain: The Door Handle

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One reason light can be a help is that it allows you to contend with these little buggers.  I guess we call them doorknobs, but these are more like door handles.  I worked with the round versions at home as a child.  They are known as pomos in Spanish.  But the shape of preference in Spain is the one you can see in the image, and it is called a picaporte, which sounds word for those croutons you toss in your soup.  Most of you will have guessed right if you think that the main function of this contraption is to open and, when needed, close doors, windows, closets and such. When you crank them down, and hear all those crunching innerworkings going on, you really get the full enjoyment of the mechanism in motion, if such a thing as finding pleasure in that act.  But you would be foolish to think that that is where their usefulness ends.

       Though they serve their purpose satisfactorily in their primary role, these fixed instruments seemed to have been devised with other more devious ends, and if I were to put my money on it, I would go as far as to claim that their manufacturing has been financed by the textile industry, and in particular, clothiers who specialize in button-down shirts.  This is because the rounded-end hook, while seemingly harmless to the non-Abercrombie-and-Fitch-Doorman human like me who wears shirts most of the time, is actually capable of ripping an irreparable gash in the sleeve in a split-second.  And, as the nature of the universe would have it, the more expensive the garment, the greater the likelihood of its being involuntarily torn into strips of rags.  Here is another specimen.  Facing the other direction, but equally lethal.

After all of these years, it still happens from time to time.  There are certain experiences I will never learn from.

Images of Spain,Madrid,Spain,What's happening in Madrid

January 6, 2013

Images of Madrid: The Three Kings’ Day Parade

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This is no mistake, though could easily have been one, knowing my page.  The image on your left is a non-image, it’s “a there” that is not there for your viewing pleasure.  I was at a friend’s office with my two daughters to watch the Three Kings’ Day Parade (The Feast of the Epiphany no longer says much to a lot of people other than it might refer to a white fresh water bird eating a large meal), because Madrid’s is the most famous of them all.  Parents tell their children “These are the real thing! The real kings.  They come to Madrid.”, which is surely what moms and dads around the land tell their children in all the towns and villages throughout the town.

            This parade that you cannot see used to kick off right across the street from where I live, in the Retiro Park, but they moved it over to the Paseo de la Castellana, oh I’d say some seven years ago, to turn it into a bigger and more spectacular event.  That was back when Spain had money and could afford these things.  Well, it couldn’t afford them back then either, but the difference was everyone liked to pretend it could.

            My friend has his law firm in a building right smack on the Castellana just above the Plaza de Colón (That’s the literal equivalent of “Columbus Square”, not a hotel for people with intestinal disorders), and from the height of the fourth floor, we are afforded a terrific vista.  It used to be a cozy gathering of just a few, but the numbers have risen, as well as word has spread, and now we can call it snug, but in a suffocating sense, if you know what I mean.

            In any event, it was fun to get together and toast with some cava and dive our faces into yet more Three Kings’ cake.  This has always been the torte par excellence on these dates, but more recently, the numbers have increased, as has the quality, I am happy to say.  The cake has never been a big hit with me, but before it was like sinking your teeth into a stack of envelopes.  Now, for the most part, the good bakers of this city have come up a recipe moist enough to make indulging generally something you won’t choke on and occasionally even a pleasure.

            The majority of us would migrate from the table over to the balcony to poke our heads out, then back to table again, chatting with friends and joking with children as they got all revved up for the Three Wise Men to make their way down the street in flashy floats.

            This parade is always slow to get up and running and the children in the bleachers, in their despair after such a long wait, will cheer for just about anything.  A lone cop on a motorcycle puttering down the road drew a rousing round of applause.

            Finally, the first sign of life appeared and the entertainment-starved crowd let out a roar.  Then you had the usual fare of bands, a few gaudily-colored floats featuring famous Christmas stories and Disney characters, the traditional banner tossers, a ballerina twirling and somersaulting while suspended beneath an enormous balloon, and that sort of thing.  Then came the military guard, the royal mounted guard, ducks, sheep, camels, and more exotic fauna like elephants.  But it was all stop and go.  Stuttering and puttering, the way these things happen to work when they try to deal with the logistics of a well-timed parade.

            Adults find this annoying, but children find it unbearable.  At the office the kids would stand up and run for more cake, get a bunch of sugar in them, and start really buzzing around like overheated flies.  Then they would run back to the balcony and take a peek, and dart away again.  There was no sign of the kings and the show was getting somewhat dull with all the unexpected stalling, except for the moment when one of the elephants paused to take a mid-walk pee.  The animal had been lumbering down the street when all of the sudden it stiffened up and readied itself.  If dragging a dog off the path in order for it to do its duty was tough enough, here there was little choice but to sit and wait.  It gushed out, I tell you, and sent a tsunami of urine right for the other side of the street where the crowd panicked to avoid the impending flow.  The rest of us who were out of harm’s way got a good laugh out of it.

            Speaking of basic needs, it was just about that moment when one of my daughters announced that she needed to go, and so I showed her through to the back of the labyrinthlike office where there was a restroom and then returned to the window.  Just then I saw the first of the three kings coasting by freely the way Barbie drives her convertible along the California coast.  At that speed it was hard to get glimpse of which one it was, but the white beard gave it away.  It was King Melchor, Melchior in English, my daughter’s favorite.  So, I raced back to the bathroom, told her to make it snappy, and then we tore back to catch the rest of the show.

            By the time we got there, the time elapsed had barely eclipsed 30 seconds, all we could see was the back of the final float with Balthazar hurriedly waving to children below.  Caspar must have been sandwiched in between there, but I can only assume this because I had no visual confirmation.

            That was it.  Done.  There was nothing left.  Whole families were descending from the bleachers and heading home.  The sanitation department was scrubbing the inundation caused by Dumbo.  The Three Wise Men had zipped by.  I was dumbstruck.  For an hour and a half, the cast of the opening show dawdled around, sometimes taking breaks of up to ten minutes, only for the main event to sail by as if they were late for a wedding.  Not that it was going to keep me awake at night, but I did feel for the children.

            “My guess,” said a friend at my side as we saw Balthazar’s float disappear behind the horizon like a distant boat at night, “Is that they are low on candy due to the crisis and can’t afford to slow down too much.”

            I nodded with taking my eyes off the street being abandoned by thousands of somewhat stunned fans.  Sadly enough, it made sense to me.

            I have spared you the pain of viewing the tragedy, mainly because I missed it myself.

Images of Spain,Madrid

December 30, 2012

Images of Madrid: El Tulipán

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I like my images of Madrid to be to ones which people rarely imagine.

I try to see the little things that form a part of my daily life.  That’s what Warhol supposedly tried to do when starting to work on his Campbell’s Soup can sessions.  Talk about the aesthetics of everyday objects, places and people in our lives, and an artistic virtue in them.

     This is El Tulipán, a dinky little restaurant you would probably never think twice about entering, not because it is horrendous inside, but rather because it is a carbon copy of hundreds of other dinky little restaurants in this city which make up the fleet of local cafeterías.  They are an inseparable feature of the landscape here; everyone has their own spot.  I have mine nearby where I live, usually good for a quick coffee.  But you rarely bother to visit others, and pay even less attention to them as you walk around town.  Some of you may have actually passed by this and not given it any notice, like the people you see practically every day and generally ignore.

     El Tulipán is one of those.  Sort of.  In reality, it is what they cal here, a patito feo, or ugly duckling, because they food they serve inside is several steps above what you would expect.  The tiny local bar also specializes in a fabada de marisco, which is why people go there at all.  Fabada comes from fabes, which is the Asturian word for “bean”.

     I made a point of it to visit El Tulipán on one of my days off.  This was one of my chances to break away from the routine of my other life and go for lunch somewhere on a weekday, which is something I can never do.  I went with a friend who hadn’t ever been there either and we loved it.  The fabada was outstanding and the portion generous.  There was practically more seafood than beans, which is unusual.  It was served in a nice casserole dish which we could dip into again and again.

Here is what it looked like from above.

We each had seconds and thirds, a bottle of wine, two desserts and coffee for just 25 euros each.  But it was more than just the food.  It was the wall covered with pictures of well-known diners wishing the owners well, the congenial service, the simplicity.

There is a terrific book by a father-and-son team called Hidden Madrid.  I recommend it to anyone looking for a little more depth into this city.  You realize the visible delights aren’t all this city has to offer.  While the book focuses onMadrid history and curiosities, I assure you that ordinary places like El Tulipán easily form another part of this Madrid’s hidden charm.  The difference is, these places are as visible as they are unperceivable.

Images of Spain,Spain

December 15, 2012

No Place for Tired Teachers

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It’s no fun being a teacher these days.  It’s no fun being around teachers.  The end of the first term is always a tense one for educators as they try to juggle limitless tasks with limited time.  And it can get ugly.  We teachers always take a lot of flak for all the vacation time we receive, but the every profession has its drawbacks.  Ours is a total lack of scheduling flexibility.  Your classes are your classes and they are when they are, and there is no way of getting around that.  And when Christmas comes around, you can toss all the cheer out the window; it’s just no good to a tense educator.

        My friends don’t believe me. They somehow think that we spend our days with large gaps of free time to lounge about and think about other things in life other than possessives and irregular verbs, but the fact is, we don’t.  And because we don’t enjoy the kind of margin of timetable movement that others might, once things get clogged up, so do our veins, and our neurons, and our peace of mind.  We get grumpy, and plenty of it.  After all, inSpainteachers devote more hours to lessons than practically all other European countries, 17% in Primary school.  880 hours a year.

      Countries like Finland, which is what everyone mentions when they want to talk about quality education, when they want to talk about quality everything, come to think of it, reserve 677 hours, yes that’s, let me take my calculator out here, 23% less.  Is this another example of the fabled or feared, the Spanish spend more time at work but less quality work?  Is it possible for Spanish kids to actually dwell within the classroom for nearly a quarter of the time more and yet learn less than those guys up inScandinavia?  Entirely.  That’s because it’s perfectly feasible. But that doesn’t mean it’s true.  Just that it is possibly true. Why could that be?  What is it that makes education in Spain inferior?  What is it that makes Spanish mentality believe it is inferior?  And which is true?

      Naturally I have none of these answers on hand as I speak.  And I don’t have time to find them because I am entrenched in my room trying to correct scores of exams that test and retest only a small percentage of what they need to know in life.  And it is draining my life.  Then I will go to class and heartily endeavor to save my fourth-graders from making total fools out of themselves in front of their parents during the Christmas pageant.  It’s an emergency measure, you see, and all educational efforts must be put on hold as a consequence.

Were I to live in Helsinki, I’m sure I would otherwise being sipping some hot spiced wine and making plans for the evening with my friends instead of telling my friends to kiss off.

Images of Spain

November 29, 2012

Images of Madrid: The Street Bench

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Just not enough attention is given to the old street bench these days, if it ever was.  Here is your classic example in this city.  Three stained planks fastened by sturdy bolts and wrought iron, and all weighted firmly to the ground.  Their plainness is their beauty.  Their lack of finess their class.  The finest specimens lean awkwardly in one direction or another, always escaping perfection, and are worn and discolored at the edges, scuffed by the soles of shoes and rubbing of clothes.  They sport pigeon droppings, resin stains from the trees above, and are tattooed with colorful messages of love, hate and the Spanish political system.  They are havens for the elderly, beds for the poor, hangouts for the group of friends, and nocturnal hideaways for young lovers.

         They have harbored me in summery moments of extreme heat, and provided a place for a break from a long walk, when I didn’t feel like going into a café.  They have even saved me from certain moments of peril.  Just the other day, my daughters wanted to invade Claire’s, and the presence of one of these fine friends made that possible.  I let the girls run amok inside so that they could pinch and fondle every last necklace and purse in the store, while I spread my arms out freely over the wooden ridge of the backrest, and peacefully watched the people go by like minutes of time.