Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

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Images of Spain

October 3, 2015

Imágenes de España: La Factura

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Últimamente he estado haciendo algunas traducciones para una empresa que se dedica a vender su propio software, lo llaman solución en el sector, no sé por qué, y cuentan que una empresa puede perder ahorrar hasta un 30% de su gasto mensual, y por tanto, anual en telecomunicaciones y energía.  Dicen que uno de los problemas principales tiene que ver con la falta de interés por parte de los usuarios y clientes en vigilar bien las facturas.  Es decir, se nos escapan mil detalles, como tantas veces en la vida.

     Yo cumplía con la tarea casi inconscientemente, pero su duración y la repetición de las frases empezaban a calar las noción de que a lo mejor me pasaba lo mismo a mí. ¡A mí!  Y a ti también.  Sí señor, no sería de extrañar que en algún momento nada sospechado los números que aparecen en ese papelito tienen poco que ver lo que uno espera.  Y eso que por lo menos te lo mandan por escrito.  Los cachondos de Movistar, antiguamente conocido como Telefónica, ni eso.  Y, para mí, y siempre para mí, la razón se trata de aprovechar que la gente no se fija en los detalles.  La gente no se molesta.  Muchos de nosotros no nos molestamos en comprobar las facturas, aun cuando el total es una barbaridad.  Para proporcionar un poco de perspectiva….¿acaso cuando compras leche si te cobran 1,50€ en vez de 0.90€, no dices nada?

     Una visita visual a una factura en España no hace más que confirmar nuestra repulsión ante la idea que mirar uno por uno los ítems de los gastos desglosados.  Es más, hacen estremecer.  Es una bofetada en la cara de los que preferimos pasar la vida con el lema “ignorance es bliss”.  En parte porque no sabes qué hacer.  No sabes si estás siendo estafado y te sientes jilipollas por no intentar hacer nada para remediarlo.  No sabes si, aún peor, te están estafando y resulta que es legal.  O fuera lo que fuese, en caso de descubrir la verdad, no sabes cómo empezar, a quién recurrir, y si verdaderamente merece la pena luchar por la causa.  Nadie, os digo, nadie quiere sentirse así.  Mucho menso un viernes por la tarde cuando, durante unos minutos, la vida tiene sentido.

      Claro está, si eres capaz de comprenderla en primer lugar.

     Mi factura de gas para los dos últimos meses y la de luz para este mes fue 177€.  Gasté… y

      Veamos la de gas.  Según la empresa, no he consumido nada.  Es mentira, pero solo porque no me han pillado en casa para comprobar el medidor de gas.   También podían haber puesto el famoso gasto estimado, pero ni eso.  Pone: Consumo: 0.  Traducido al euros: 0.  Factura de gas: 30,27€.

     Veamos por qué.  Me cobran 8.89€ por el término (me restan un 60% de descuento, no sé por qué), otros 2,55€ por el alquiler del contador, y 24,16€ por algo que llaman un canon, que es una cuota que hay que pagar por la instalación (esto ocurrió hace mil años) y mantenimiento de la receptora de gas instalada en la finca.

     Veamos si lo mismo pasa con la electricidad.  Además de los 77€ de consumo, hizo mucho calor este año y tenía el aire puesto a toda máquina, hay que incluir el alquiler del contador de este servicio, la cuota del término de potencia, un impuesto sobre la luz, que viene siendo uno de esas tasas ocultas, y el IVA, un 21%.  Luego un par de servicios que se suponen que tengo contratados pero que no consigo averiguar lo que hacen ni para qué sirven, además de empobrecerme.

     En realidad, no pago por el uso del gas ni del de luz.  Me sale casi regalado.  Todo lo que cuesta es ajena a mi vida, a mi entorno, a mis movimientos, giros, pasos, y lo demás.   Veamos.

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.

Images of Spain

July 29, 2014

Images of Spain: The air conditioner

DSCN0915I was away in the States for over a month and the sad thing was I didn’t even have a chance to write about a thing, though there was plenty to write about, I can assure you.  There always is.  About everything.  Everything about.

  What a shame when you don’t even have a chance to sit back and jot down a few words.  Forget the photos.  Now people just take millions of them and let the retro filters and cropping do the rest.  A man once said that if you want to travel, first you must learn to draw, because when you learn to draw, you learn to observe, and when you know how to observe, you are ready for traveling.

       Lately, I haven’t feel I was ready for anything but collapse at the end of the day, and that’s not what I call a demanding skill.

      Back in Spain, the summer is going through its motions.  They tell me it was a pretty good July for the first couple of weeks, then the heat bore down and now it probably won’t let up much for the next six weeks or so.  Maybe longer.  That’s the way it works here.  Though if there is a bright side, it probably has to do with the dry air that reigns in these parts of the country.  In New England, the humidity can get so god-awful, even 80º F can feel like you are wearing two sweaters.

      Today in Madrid we got a bit of a break.  It’s only 87ºF; they call it pleasant with plenty of sun.

       It was pleasant until about an hour ago, then I decided to revert to my newest and closest friend at home, my A.C.   It’s actually been a fixture in my apartment for over three years.  It never worked, and I never bothered to have it fixed, until last summer when I said enough was a enough.  The thing was, summer was coming to an end, so I decided to wait until this May.

      In America, this appliance, I guess that is what we should call it, has long been commonplace in most homes.  And they aren’t used sparingly.  In public places like grocery stores, it can get so icy that I need to wear a sweatshirt or else an impending bowel movement will invade me somewhere around the cereal section.  I never knew why this was, and to my surprise, nor do many professionals.  “Why do I want to defecate in a cold super market?” does not get as many results on the search engine as I had envisioned.  I can’t say what number I had in mind, but I’m sure it is more than one.  Apparently my colonic muscles are stimulated by the chilly air in an action called peristalsis, when your intestinal muscles relax and contract in a way that says it’s time to make for the bathroom.  It’s the cool air that triggers that.  I began to feel that this reaction was more a personal thing, but I’m sure that it’s something people are just too embarrassed to mention.

       That said, in Spain, air conditioning in a private home was long considered a luxury and eschewed by many who felt it was unhealthy.  By many who smoked and drank regularly, and did little or no exercise.  By many who popped antibiotics at the sound of the first sneeze and nourished themselves on fatty pork meat.

     Now it is more common, but hardly rampant.  In 2008, approximately 35% of Spanish homes enjoyed artificial cooling, and though it is surely higher these days, it’s a far cry from what you get on the other side of the Atlantic. In 2011, in the United States, it was estimated that 87% of households have this now basic feature.

        So this is actually a fairly recent image of Spain.  A Spain of the last ten years, I’d say.  It’s not an image of progress, but rather one of acceptance.

Images of Spain

April 26, 2014

Great Spanish Traditions: Driving home at the end of Easter break

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Semana SantaMany people back home ask me how I spend my Easter Sunday and I always tell them the same: In a car, on a highway and with a handful of swear words on hand and a head full of ways I would like to commit violent acts.

     It’s a reasonable enquiry considering Spain has a big reputation for being such a deeply religious country, with KKK-like brotherhoods parading about scores of towns and cities toting floats depicting anguished images from the passion of Christ.  But that occurs days before when everyone commiserates with the suffering of the Savior on the eve of his crucifixion.  The part about his coming back to life, the happy-ending resurrection, that triumphant “Hey, he really is the Son of God after all”, is overshadowed by the fear of running into one of the worst traveling days of the calendar.  It’s a kind of Sunday after Thanksgiving to the tenth power.

     There was a couple of years there when I took time away from this activity and stayed in Madrid, time off to recover from repeated ordeals.  But I finally returned to one of Spain’s greatest traditions: Operación Retorno.  The photo actually shows traffic heading in the opposite the direction, towards the feared Alicante, but the sense of helplessness it conveys is virtually the same on the way back. 

     There is really nothing complicated about experiencing this great custom.  Just spend a weekend about 500 kilometers away, pack your car, get behind the wheel, and head for the nearest highway that takes you back to Madrid.  Then you look for the first traffic jam you can find, pull up at the end of the line and participate. 

      In the past, returning from a coastal place like Alicante meant the backup usually started a few yards from where my car was parked, some 350 miles from Madrid.  It could go on for days.  But this time I was regressing from the north, and that made things slightly more tolerable.  The electronic panels spanning the road informed the traveler of any impending doom, and on this occasion indicated that we could expect “slow traffic”, which I took as a good sign since it suggested we would be home in two hours instead of the usual four or five it might normally take.  The traffic adopted the classic worm effect, crunching and stretching out throughout the countryside of Madrid.  Every kilometer we advance counted as victory toward a common goal: reaching Fort Living Room before insanity set in. 

      To say you returned to Madrid on Easter Sunday without considering homicide is a true indicator of just how involved you are in life here.  It’s a necessary part of your training in Spanish culture.  It’s like mastering the subjunctive mode in Spanish, or watching from beginning to the final credits of the Eurovision song contest.  No one wants to go through with it, and yet everyone should. 

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, 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.


          “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.