Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Blog Archives

TRENDING SPAIN,Uncategorized

August 18, 2017

Trending Spain: Tourism, Anti-tourism and Terrorism

Just the other day I was talking to some friends about tourists in Madrid, especially the center of Madrid.  The downtown of the capital has been almost completely tranformed into something that hardly resembles el centro I knew from the early 90s.  For better and for worse.  For better because twenty-five years ago, it looked so rundown and foresaken someone once told me they need to have a torch set to it.

     Instead, the city slowly began to turn it around as a way of enticing people back and also as way of refloating the local economy.  It’s basically another example of the generalized gentrification process that is impacting many urban centers in Europe.  I call it more locally, the Chueca Effect, the gay neighborhood which got the ball rolling I’d say about fifteen years ago; the neighboring areas have followed suit ever since.  This has led to a much healthier, much more attractive district, with pretty and modern restaurants, pedestrian-friendly side-streets,  and economically viable downtown.

     It’s also led to other things.  For worse, I say, because streets like the Gran Vía, once the aorta of Madrid; once a thoroughfare that used to be lined with immensely glorious movie theaters, outdoor cafés, and fancy stores; once a road where Hemingway would race from the Hotel Florida to the Telefonica building to send off his reports on the Spanish Civil War, have now become a haven for lowcost shopping.  H&M is a somewhat upscale option, if that is any indicator. Some of those old traditonal establishments have been muscled out, removing that special atmosphere that characterized the city.  The word “tapas bar” was never used here until about ten years ago, so my suggestion is that you avoid the places that go by that description.

     The spledidly attractive Hotel Florida, designed by the proliferic Antonio Palacios but razed in 1964, was located in a square called Callao which more or less represents the mid-point of Gran Vía.  In the last couple of years massive electronic billboards have been thrown up in an attempt, as far as I can tell, to turn it into a mini Times Square.  Why?  Your guess is as good as mine. I think it looks ridiculous.

     Regardless of one’s opìnion, there is no denying that Spain’s tourism sector, while always quite competitive, is once again extremely robust.  The numbers are there, and they’re growing.  It is jockeying for position with France and the United States for the number one spot.  In 2016, it virtually tied the United States with something like 75.6 million visitors in one year.  Forecasts say it will top 80 million in 2017.  And when tourists do come, they are so glad they did, they often return.  One report claimed 8 out of 10 visitors come back.  Those are incredibly positive numbers from a business standpoint.  Almost beyond belief.

While the tourism boom has become the talk of town, this should not really come as any surprise.  It has been a major industry in this country ever since the 1960s when Spain, still under the fairly tight grip of Franco’s regime, began to understand the enormous benefits its natural resources could provide.  That is, endless hours of sunny weather and an enviable supply of sand.  There are some 3,000 beaches that make up the 7,900kms of coast. Right now tourism constitutes officially about 12% of the GNP (I get the feeling it’s higher), and whether the Spanish like it or not, it essentially rescued the country from total mayhem during the Great Recession.

This makes some Spaniards uncomfortable because I think they’d prefer that their country run on a different kind of fuel.  “What would you prefer?” I ask. “Building two million homes no one is going to buy?”  They know the answer, but I can also share their frustration.  I would probably tire from all the constant activity if I lived in one of those neighborhoods, not to mention pay the increasing prices that have forced some tenants out of their barrios.  I would certainly be fed up with dealing with the massive unbridled partying that poisons some of those seaside towns.

So, yes, there is a price to pay for taking the country down this road, especially in places where the presence of tourism is constant, like the coast, the islands or the the middle of Madrid or Barcelona in general.  Some places are trying to do something about it.  Spain’s second largest city has already taken measures to curtail the almost unstoppable “air bnb” fad, and licenses to build new hotels have been banned temporarily.  The belief is, there are already plenty of beds available.

Some citizens have taken the matter into their own hands, as pockets of anti-tourism movements have formed to lash out at the overwhelming numbers.  They have made their presence known through graffiti messages, open-air insults and, at times, violence.  Just last month, a group of angered locals slashed the tires of a sightseeing tour bus in Barcelona, frightening the bejesus out of foreigners who thought they were under attack by some Islamic terrorist group.  It was an understandable fear given the times, but to their relief, that was the extent of the group’s intentions.   The same kind of fortune cannot be said for 13 innocent people who faced a very different kind of menace on what should have been a quiet August afternoon.

You see, by pure coincidence, I was starting my first post in months and was writing on the subject of tourism, when I got a whatsapp from my nephew back in CT asking about what was up in Barcelona.  “I dunno. I’ll check.”

Most of the world knows the story by now.  It’s been a terrible shock to many.  To me too, but only to a point.  The way things have been going in Europe the last couple of years, it made sense that Spain might be soon targeted.  Plus, there were warning signs.  The Spanish security forces and anti-terrorist forces have thwarted a number of alleged planned attacks over the years, which shows they are effective, efficient and just plain on the ball.  But it also proves the radicals were out to act, and no matter how good you are at containing the terrorists, it’s never easy to predict that on a Thursday afternoon in an ordinary day, they will decide to strike.

Yesterday, Barcelona felt the immediate effects of the latest episode of a recent wave of horrid attacks on European cities where vans are used to mow down pedestrians, in many cases, tourists.  13 were killed and a hundred injured after maybe a minute of pure terror.  The technique is brutal.  The damage, immense.  The pain, uncalculable.

The effect…well that’s a different story.  By this morning, the Ramblas, the beautiful street where the atrocity took place, appeared to be returning to normal.  There is no better message to send out to the terrorists and the world.


In Spanish,Uncategorized

March 26, 2017

Tendencias de la España XXI: La Era Bio

Pues alguien me va a tener que explicar por qué, si España es la piedra angular de la afamada, legendaria y milenaria “dieta mediterránea” de la que tanto les gusta a sus ciudadanos presumir, por qué, repito, ¿por qué es tan necesario ir rompiendo con lo que ya funciona?  “If it works, don’t fix it,” como decimos en mi idioma. Últimamente, parece que no veo otra cosa que sitios y supers obsesionados con productos Bio con la intención de superar lo que ha sido hasta ahora para mí y para casi toda la humanidad, si me permitís tomar la libertad de generalizar, insuperable.  Y me supera.

     Tantos años de adoctrinamiento en el fascinante mundo de la gastronomía española, tantas veces instruido en el indudable, el incuestionable beneficio de una fabada (hecha el día anterior por supuesto) me convirtieron en el fan número del mundo mundial de esta comida; comida que no solo se encuentra en casi cualquier lado (como es el caso en muchos países del mundo, incluyendo mi querido Estados Unidos) sino que también se compra y, ¿preparados?, se consume (como no pasa en muchos países del mundo, incluyendo mi querido Estados Unidos).

        Basta con entrar en una casa norteamericana con una bolsa de algo tan sano, pero a la vez tan normal y corriente como las lentejas y se llena el aire de unos cuantos “oohs” y “aahs” y las cejas llegan hasta el techo.  “¿Y eso?”

     “No es nada.  Solo unas lentejas.  Las tomamos casi todas las semanas.  No tienen nada de especial.”  Y es verdad.  No se da mucha importancia a todo lo bueno que comemos en este país.  Y es verdad que es mentira porque sí se da mucha importancia.  España entera es como un plato lleno de tapas.  Hasta hablar de los lugares españoles es hablar de la gastronomía española.  “Huelva…¡qué gambas tiene! ¡Y qué me dices del jamón!”, “San Sebastián…con eso pinchos…”, “¿Granada? Preciosa.  Y con las tapas que te ponen, cenas con dos rondas de cañas.”  La lista es larga y placentera y ayuda a motivar al alumno de geografía.

      Pero parece ser que la perfección no es suficiente.  Ahora la sociedad pide cada vez más que todo, absolutamente todo, lo que comemos quede “limpio” de impurezas.  Todo tiene que ser natural. Y ojalá eso fuera el único criterio.  Antes se enterraba todo en sal y ¡hala! todo bien muerto.  No hay bicho que sobreviva eso.

    A lo largo de estos años he hecho mi parte para defender las migas con chorizo, la paella amarillada con colorante, y la panceta frita pero para demonstrar que tampoco soy un tío que se ha detenido en los tiempos del bocadillo de calamares fritos en la Plaza Mayor (contra todo pronóstico lógico, el sandwich más árido jamás inventado sigue siendo un manjar para miles de turistas todos los años), de vez en cuando me aventuro en el mundo de la alimentación súper-sana para ver qué es lo que puedo descubrir de mi lado más sensible, y así mirarme en el espejo, guiñarme un ojo, soplarme un beso y maullar, “¡Qué hombre más Eco eres, Brian!”

       Y como buen residente permanente de España con un NIE de los primeros, de gran reserva, empiezo con un par de huevos.  ¡Olé!  Cinco pares, incluso.  ¡Olé, olé!

     Digo cinco, porque veo que la primera cosa que se ve afectado por esta nueva moda es la cantidad de comida que te proporcionan frente las medidas tradicionales.  Diez en vez de doce.  Y eso me jode, con perdón.  Yo me pregunto: ¿Qué pasa con la clásica docena?  Es un número tan apostólico, tan anual, tan astral.  Las panaderías llevan siglos vendiendo sus productos según la magia de ese número, y los hueveros, que yo sepa.  ¿Es una señal que la Era Bio nos está haciendo menos machos?

     No lo sé, pero lo que sí os puedo asegurar es que me está haciendo más lelo, porque cuando me encuentro cara a cara con el embalaje de uno de esos productos se me sale un ademán que algunos que me han visto en directo han comparado con el rostro de los seres humanos más primitivos que en el pasado vagaban por las tierras en busca de frutos secos, roedores muertos, piedrecitas o Dios sabe qué cosas ingerían entonces.  O incluso a uno de “esos tíos que trabajan en una fábrica de martillos, ¿me entiendes?” observó otro.  Más o menos.

     No sé por dónde empezar pero desde luego muchas veces sé cómo acabar.  Por dejarlo de nuevo en el estante, susurrar “¡Por el amor de Dios!” y dirigirme a la zona de alimentos plenamente transgénicos para encontrar unos momentos de consolación al lado de un tubo de Pringles.

     Los huevos son otra cosa, porque se venden todos en el mismo sitio, así que voy dedicando algo de mi tiempo valioso a estudiar exactamente qué es lo que hace que un huevo sea un huevo de calidad.  Antes todas las aves las tenían literalmente “cooped up” como decimos en inglés, encajadas en unos espacios minúsculos, donde los animales pasaban una existencia infernal con el fin de servir al hombre.  Sigue pasando, pero hacemos como si no fuese así.  Como mucha gente, miro el presupuesto, hago el sueco, e intento imaginar que los dueños de las empresas que ofrecen 24 huevos a 1,49€ realmente se levantan por la mañana todos los días y masajean personalmente a cada pájaro antes de que el primero huevo se haya puesto.  Me ayuda a pasar por la caja sin remordimientos.

      No obstante, el otro día por fin piqué y me llevé una caja, pero no sin investigar un poco antes de tomar una determinación.

     En primer lugar, tuve en cuenta el número: un paquete de diez.  Pensaba que ese número automáticamente confirmaba que eran “de los buenos”, aunque realmente era una manera de hacerme creer que eran más baratos de lo que son.  Luego el color: verde.  Sugería que lo que iba a meter en mi carro no solo iba a hacerme un humano más completo sino una persona dispuesta a salvar el mundo.  También había que considerar el nombre: “Naturelle”, suena francés y, por defecto, superior en calidad.

     Todo pintaba bien, así que me fijé en los detalles para ver si lo anterior había sido un engaño o no.  La alimentación: basada en maíz y trigo con una aportación superior al 60% y soja y complementaban con otros cereales “nobles” y minerales.  Que yo supiera, todas las gallinas comen así, pero me sonaba cojonudo.

     Finalmente, tuve la oportunidad de adentrarme en la vida cotidiana de uno de esos animalitos.  En letra grande decía “gallinas en libertad”, cosa que me alegraba por una parte y desconcertaba por otra porque daba la sensación de que eran aves que habían cumplido sus condenas en la cárcel y encontrado una manera de integrarse de nuevo en la sociedad poniendo huevos.  He visto a estos seres vivos libres con mis propios ojos y os puedo asegurar que algunos son auténticos matones.  Tienen plumas que cubren hasta los garras de sus pies, como si pertenecieran a los Ángeles del Infierno. No me gustaría nada deberles dinero.

      Igual de inquietante era lo que ponía después que era “criadas en suelo y con acceso al aire libre”.  No sé qué opináis vosotros, pero a mí me suena a que antes las tenían suspendidas en el aire con una red debajo para atrapar el huevo volador y que de vez en cuando les abría la ventana para respirar, llamándolo “acceso al aire libre”.

      A pesar de todo, me lancé y realicé el pago, orgulloso de que ya era un hombre Eco.  Se lo dije a mi “significant other”, como nos gusta decir en Estados Unidos, porque ella es una auténtica experta en estos terrenos, y quería hacerle ver que sabía actualizarme.  “Muy bien,” me felicitó. “¿Pero el alimento procede de maíz transgénico?”

     “Yo qué sé.  No lo pone.  Mira.  Pone que las gallinas son felices.  ¿No vale?”

“Yes, but is the food transgenic?  That’s important.”

     “Esto no tiene fin.  Me rindo.  Voy a por un bocadillo de calamares y una caña doble.”  Mañana lo intentaré de nuevo.

30 Days of Christmas

December 10, 2016

Los Cuarenta y Dos Días de Navidad

Pues nada.  He sobrevivido la mitad del Puente de Diciembre más o menos ileso.  Y por primera vez desde que he pisado un colegio como empleado, puedo decir que por fin disfruto de este maravilloso fin de semana largo gracias al hecho de que hemos enviado los boletines de notas a los padres con tres semanas de antelación, dando paso a que los padres se peleen con sus hijos mientras tomamos un pequeño respiro.

      Este año la semana ha transcurrido con absoluta anormalidad, con una parte de la clase ausente el lunes a causa de viajes familiares, otra parte ausente el miércoles, también por motivos de salidas, y una tercera parte missing total.  Mis amigos no-educadores me regañan por aprovechar esta situación para tender un puente y añadir el viernes a nuestra de festivos, pero es lógico.  Nadie realmente quiere clase ese día, y los hoteles, restaurantes y tiendas se benefician de nuestro esfuerzo.  Es una labor casi social.

      Con una oportunidad tan suculenta para salir de la ciudad, mucha gente ha aprovechado para pasar unos días en las afueras e incluso en el extranjero. Londres es un destino muy popular, hasta que lleguen allí y digan por primera vex en una tienda “How much is the ‘Keep Calm and Eat Tapas’ t-shirt?”  Aaaaamigo.  De repente todos se acuerdan de los buenos precios de la Primark en La Gran Vía.  Que se joden.  Haberlo pensado antes.

        Yo, en cambio, he tomado la determinación de permanecer en Madrid y acercarme a precisamente esta arteria de la ciudad, que se ha convertido en todo un destino para los turistas procedentes de todas partes del mundo.  Congregan con el fin de pasear por las calles repletas de humanidad sin mucha humanidad, correr para llegar al comienzo de un musical tipo Broadway, tomar algo en uno de los centenares de franquicias que han florecido en la zona y adquirir una chaqueta de cuero por 19€.  Y es que la Gran Vía, hace decadas un lugar de suntuosos cines gigantescos, cafés chic y hoteles de lujo se ha visto objeto de una profunda trnasformación y ahora se le conoce como la meca de compras para los thrifty, o económicamente conscienciados, a tal extremo que Zara, quizás la empresa responsable de cambiar el rumbo de retail a nivel mundial, ya presume de ser una tienda de cierto nivel.  Dear God.

         Los puristas de la zona se echan las manos a la cabeza y lamentan la perdida de la dignidad de esta magna confluencia, entregada a manos de unos comerciantes a los que les da igual que pierda su carácter particular.  El problema es que dicha dignidad se fue derrumbando ya hace muchos años.  Cuando yo la conocí por primera vez, era una sombra de su anterior espelndor.  Las paredes estaban ennegrecidas por el humo de la gasolina super (bien provisto de plomo, gracias) y el de los Ducados que se fumaban con tanto afán.  Los bares estaban medio muertos, cuando no a punto de morirse, sus suelos cubiertos de papeles, palillos y piedras de aceitunas.  Los cines se llenaban solo los domingos por la tarde, el comercio era viejo y astronómicamente caro, los grandes almacenes, como Galerías Preciados, estaban con un pie en la tumba, y la flora y fauna que se encontraba allí parecían en muchos casos, los olvidados de un barrio olvidado.

        Aun así, sé por donde van y comparto en parte esta tristeza, pero quizás prefieren sentir nostalgia por la agonía de un moribundo. Hay gente así.

        En fin, para bien o para mal, según tu visión de la vida, la transformación literalmente ha rescatado el centro de la ciudad de una muerte anunciada, inyectado la zona con una dosis brutal de tratamiento de negocio y seguramente suavizó los efectos de la devastadora y duradera recesión.   Pero a algunos, no les interesa eso.  Estábamos mejor cuando las jeringuillas adornaban el suelo y los proxenetas insultaban a sus empleadas en plena calle.

         Lo que sí se echa de menos es la posibilidad de caminar por la acera de esa calle sin llegar a la conclusión de que estoy recreando una escena de una de esas películas sobre un éxodo en tiempos de guerra.  Cualquier sábado es así.  Es más, hay puntos cuando no avanzas nada.  Llega a agobiar mucho y son esos momentos en los que yo doy gracias a Dios que vivo en un país donde las leyes sobre la posesión de armas de fuego son estrictas.   Durante el resto del año, es posible evitar ese infierno con un poco de planning, pero el problema con la Navidad (y hay unos cuantos en esta época), es que absolutamente todos los días, los cuarenta y dos días, parecen sábados.  Y eso no mola.

     Para combatir esa realidad, el Ayuntamiento ha decidido tomar cartas en el asunto y ampliar las aceras para acomodar a las masas y, de paso, restringir más o menos por completo, el uso de vehículos. Para nada me sorprende esas medidas.  La alcadesa nunca ha sido un fan del coche, lo suyo sería quitarlos de en medio en estas fechas.  Una especie de regalo de reyes para los peatones.  Y así ha sido.

     El plan ha sido reducir los seis carriles que comprenden la calle a todos, uno en cada sentido, y así ensanchar el espacio para recibir a los turistas.  ¿Cómo será esta modificación? me pregunté deseoso de conocerlo en persona.  ¿Harán algo con gusto y apropriado para la estación?  ¿Adornorán las barreras policiales con guirnaldas de pino?  Si esto fuera Estocolmo, seguro que harían una cosa cuca así.  (Continuará…que estoy cansado de escribir)


September 3, 2016

Where the hell do you think you’re going now señor Brian? 8

We went to a few different supermarkets in La Fuente in search of some honey-mustard sauce, which was really a rather tall order for a town that size in Spain, since both ingredients as separate entities were plentiful, but their union into one amazing dressing had not taken hold. We might as well been searching for cassette players at an Apple Store. Just wasn’t going to happen.

     But we tried anyway to no avail. Still, I got to amuse myself with discovering just how these places are arranged in those towns. There they are little more than homes with small storage places turned into makeshift grocery stores. One was clearly designed originally to provide shelter for cars. In other parts of the world they call it a garage. Now it kept ketchup. Many don’t even have a sign on the outside, then again neither does a lot of other commerce in those parts, and the minute their metallic doors are shut at the end of the day, they become humble abodes again. Abodes with a shitload of canned peas, but abodes all the same.

      Then we returned and made some spare ribs in the wood fired oven, which is the kind of thing they still do in Europe from time to time and it’s that Old World fun that makes it so enticing to us iPhone wielding Americans. And invariably, I knew we would announce that food just plain tastes better when it’s been heated with real wood. It’s probably a crock, but we go with it anyway, mainly because our lives need these little highlights.

      Thankfully, the oven had its own thermometer on the outside which appeared to be working, its needle at least moved up and down, so I didn’t have to resort to inserting my fingers and waiting to see how quickly they charred to determine the temperature. We drenched them in a homemade barbecue sauce made with ketchup, vinegar and Coke, and ingredient most people wouldn’t dream of including, kept the oven well-supplied with vine wood and that was that. An hour later, the dish was ready to be devoured. Then we accompanied lunch with salad, salmorejo (which is a thicker, richer version of gazpacho – more or less), Manchego cheese and melon for dessert, and washed it all down with beer mixed with lemon soda and a bottle of wine from La Mancha.

      When it was all over…no one said a word, but there was an unspoken consensus on what to do next. And in the mind of every person, there was pleasure in the silent thought. It was time for the siesta…a tradition much misunderstood in both this country and abroad. If I have time, I’ll discuss it later. In fact, I know just where and will tell you about it if I don’t die before I reach that chapter.

      What I will say is that except for the mountain areas where an occasional thunderstorm might pop up and cause a downpour, the weather in the center of Spain offers little variation to the point of extreme monotony. It is sunny and hot every day. Every single day. And every other day, it is hotter and sunnier. From the perspective of the people in my home state of Connecticut, to learn that it is not unusual for us to go from June 1 to October 1 without a single drop of rain reaching the surface of the earth (the period can be longer), the notion stretches the realms of what is possible, but for these parts it is not completely and utterly plausible, it is flat-out typical. That means mid to late afternoon temperatures regularly hover around 95-100º F. There is nothing to do but go unconscious.

       A couple of hours later, all life was restored and human activity filled the house. We (being three adults and three kids) went for a dip in the pool, hung out and chatted for a while, then piled into Javi’s 4×4 and for a drive along the back roads. Javi pointed out some of the vineyards that still belonged to his family, but for the most part he showed us the areas he would ride his bike in the morning. “Here’s where I get a drink of water. Here the hill is so steep I almost die.” Julia found these details generally too personal for anyone to care about, I think the exact words were, “Who gives a shit?”, but I knew exactly where Javi was coming from, as we were both men and these were the things men tended to do. Yes, men tended to do these things.

       I might, for example, say to my daughters with a boundless sense of pride, “Look at this door I painted.”

      “Looks great,” they reply without awarding as much as a glance at the new sheen before slamming it shut.

      Then I’ll enter the living room and interrupt their Netflix, “Here’s the brush I used. It’s got two different types of bristles.”

      “That’s great,” they’ll repeat without ungluing their e yes from the HD screen.
Then we’ll be walking up the street and I’ll point out, “Here’s where I bought the paint.”

       “Dad! Please! Who cares! (i.e. a daughter’s way of saying who gives a shit?)”

       “Fine, fine. I’ll stop.”

       “Thank you.”

       Then after a six second pause, slip in very nimbly. “The can cost just 6€.”

      In any event, Javi took us over a rocky road most cars would have perished on during the crossing, but we made to the end, passed a cheap hotel most likely kept afloat by couples seeking covert operations, and headed down some of the local roads on the other side of the highway. We cruised through the some towns hardly giving much thought to their existence. One was rather uninspiring, the other was maybe a notch above, but that wasn’t saying much. The only bar in town was barren. Of people and products. I walked in with Javi with a thirst so great I bet I could have been legally deemed dead. “Can I have a Coke?”

       “No Coke.”


       “No Aquarius.”

        “Bottled water?”

       “Out of that too.” This was beginning to feel like a Monty Python sketch.

       “Is there anything to drink on these premises?” The back wall was lined with bottles of liquor but I think she knew that was not what I was there for.

       “It’s the end of the weekend. We’ve run out of most things. Let me see….there is…” she examined the cavernous interior of commercial refrigerator for some time. To get a better look, she plunged her head inside the chamber. The emptiness must have been vast, as if it were cooling a section of the universe.

       “Here’s something.” I could hear her voice echo from within as she raised her head again and produced a can which had clearly been residing there for so long it had actually been detached from the floor of the fridge. “It’s a sugar-free Nestea.”

       Sugar-free Nestea! Well, they might as well have been serving me a cup of hemlock. I accepted it anyway as my thirst outdid my will to resist.

        From there we meandered along more back roads through the golden summer fields to the main event of the day, a town of considerable fame in history of the region, Uclés, Cuenca. Not every Spaniard can tell you why it is famous, even fairly cultured friends will give you a look as if they were trying to construct a sentence in Russian. “I think I’ve been there”, but I can assure you there was a time it was one of the most important centers of power during Medieval Spain. And certainly several steps up in appearance. Most of the home owners had chosen the somewhat conservative hue of white, but when applied in unison, gave an effect of beauty and brightness that outshone the nearby villages.
Anyone approaching the Uclés will be immediately entranced by the handsome, the majestic, the imposing presence of the monastery perched up on the hilltop above the town. It stands at the end of a string of three fortress towers and is in itself a truly massive structure. It belonged to the Order of Santiago, as just about everything did back then, but in summertime doubled as a location for an activity you would least expect to find in a convent in the heart of the province of Cuenca: an English camp.

         I happened to know the head of the teaching staff who just happened not to be there that day, so we put off our visit to the landmark and walked around the center of Uclés where the main square in front of an unusually modern church was teeming with children burning off late day energy, much to their parents’ delight. They had gone to the nearby outdoor cafés for a drink and a break from their duties. It is one of the undeniable benefits of having children in Spain. Javi and Julia sent their kids in the same direction and welcomed the chance to find a table and take a break. We did the same at a bar that looked like someone’s backyard, and ordered several rounds of white wine from la Mancha, not always a reliable choice, but this was from Javi’s uncle’s winery and it was aromatic and had enough acid to make it crisp, which is what some of the whites in this region can be sorely lacking.  Each round came with a healthy-sized plate of tapas.  Spain could be so kind to humans in the summer.


August 25, 2016

Where do you think you’re going now señor Brian? 7

Just who exactly was Pedro Naharro is a matter of little debate: no one knows. Extensive research cannot be conducted on the subject because so little reliable information is available. There probably never was any in the first place, so scholars, if any really made an earnest effort to discover the truth to begin with, seem to have devoted little more than a coffee break to the finding the answer. To date, the first significant reference to the town did not come until the mid-16th Century with the “Relaciones Topográficas de Felipe II”, a kind of Domesday book of Spain. The most likely theory, based rather heavily on the man’s last name, was that the man in question was what they called a “repoblador”, that is, a settler from the north who had come after the Reconquest of those lands from the Muslims to help repopulate Castile. In this case, Pedro or his family would have come originally from Navarra, at least that is what we can surmise from his surname. And chances are he did so after being given the go ahead by King Alfonso VIII, who told members of the Knights of Santiago to resettle the land. But this may all sound rather new to you, so let me backtrack.

       You see, when the Muslims invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711, after a sorely miscalculated tactic by the Spanish rival to the throne (he essentially invited the strongest and fiercest fighting force of the world at that time into the country), and after a fateful battle to check the encroachment (most historians called it a one-sided slaughter), they gobbled up the Visigoth kingdom in record time. By 719, nine tenths of modern Spain and Portugal was under Umayyad control, and six years later, more than half of what is modern-day France fell too. The situation could not have looked bleaker, but the tides were beginning to turn. On one hand, Charles Martel “The Hammer” of the Franks handed the Muslims their first major loss at the Battle of Poitiers, and in the northern region of Asturias, a rebel leader named Pelayo, later to be called the first of what would become centuries later modern Spain, checked the Islamic invaders advance in a small encounter with huge morale consequences.

       But the going was slow. What took the northern Africans a dozen years to conquer, Christians needed approximately five centuries to retake. Swift they weren’t, but certainly tenacious. The constant warring left the middle of the country with its endless open plains and limited natural protection a rather insensible place to make a permanent home. Never a particularly densely populated region, by the 10th Century, it must have been one of the loneliest spots on earth. The local kingdoms chipped away at the Muslim control and to ensure the invaders would not return, peppered the region with castles, so many in fact, that the territory became known as Castile, Land of the Castles. As I have said before, the Spanish from those parts weren’t prone to imagination, but they had a knack for getting to the point. The monarchs also encouraged their subjects to return to the center plains of the country. In this case it was Alfonso VIII who, after retaking the city of Cuenca, gave the order for people to resettle. Both policies met limited success at first, since the borders flexed back and forth for two hundred years before they began to see the fruit. But in the long run, they allowed Castile to establish itself in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula.

       So it was, supposedly, that Mr. Naharro at some point decided to build a permanent home near a natural spring whose supply was generally so reliable, a veritable treasure in those parts, that beasts and men alike could count on its flowing nearly year round. Just when that occurred is uncertain. The town website itself informs that little is known about its founding and devotes most of the section to talking about other subjects, which should give you an idea of the historical blackout any researcher is facing. But a fairly good educational guess dates it at around 1200, a fairly recent incorporation by Western European standards, but a good 148 years before the Black Death, 240 years before the printing press, 292 years before the official Discovery of America, and 440 years before my hometown of Greenwich, CT was founded…one of the oldest towns in the United States.

       Though there doesn’t appear to be a historical document indicating just what Pedro devoted his professional life to, legend has it he owned a “venta” or country inn. That’s how Javi described it when I first asked him. “Yeah. He was some guy who had an inn. There are a lot of them around here. Travelers needed a place to eat, sleep and shit.” From a scholarly standpoint, his assessment is lacking in weighty academic fundament, but he probably wasn’t far off. Ventas were common and necessary in those parts and they are still found today. There are even drawings depicting his home as a venta, so it seems entirely legitimate. The town continued to grow and became a part of the Order of Santiago network, I will tell you more about that a little later, and consolidated. Whatever it was Pedro dedicated his life to, eventually a small settlement grew nearby, and the town received the name by association with the spring. The reserves that were certainly abundant enough to earn him local fame seem at some point to have dried up and never come back. The town built a fountain dedicated to the woman who would walk ridiculous distances in order to fetch a pail of water. The monument was inaugurated in 1995 with several lively spouts of water bounding into the air. A month later, the water was cut off for an unspecified period of time. It’s now been twenty-one years. This is a very dry region, I tell you, which is why the olive tree, the grape vine and the Holmes’ oak are all so happy to grow and live here.


August 18, 2016

Where the hell do you think you’re going now señor Brian? 6

Buildings and houses in La Mancha (and for many parts of Castile for that matter) can be so wanting in style and elegance, so heavy on plainness to the point they border on utterly dull, that a visitor may reach the conclusion that Cervantes’ decision to have his main character lose his mind, burst out of town and seek thrills elsewhere, be they as disturbing as impaling windmills in full motion, was not a stroke of genius but rather an understandable and premeditated determination to seek mental relief taken by any half-reasoning human being from those parts. It can be just that stark.

        But it also makes it equally deceiving.

       For within the thick walls of many of those dwellings lie interiors which belie their austere shells. Take Javi’s family’s place, for instance. On the outside, it is actually a step up or two from the average, being a handsome stately home in the town, but little would suggest the beguiling settings on the other side. A respectable front hall which leads directly to a covered atrium, clad in marble, well populated with plants. And furnished with wicker chairs and a couch and plump cushions, a wrought iron table topped with glass. It’s also considerably cooler than the outside.

       This leads to a strategically dark living room, a perfect den for watching TV and taking refuge from the heat, with a fine wooden dining room, next to a large kitchen for Spanish standards, with a bead curtain in the door that takes you outside to a covered porch, equipped with a spray to chill the air and followed by a patio with a large pool, wood-fired oven for baking barbecues, and a grill. In short, a veritable luxury. Once inside the walls, there seems little need to go anywhere else.

         Jav’s place was by no means an exception to the rule.  Dozens of homes in that town boasted similarly impressive decors.  Nor was La Fuente special in that sense.  If you penetrate the town line of La Seca in Valladolid, your first inclination is to execute a three-point turn and depart as soon as possible.  On a Friday night it can appear so desolate that you might think that the place was three deaths away from becoming a ghost town.  What most newcomers don’t realize is that they are parked above one of the nation’s largest white wine reserves, and taking a jack hammer to the pavement would most likely provoke a golden-green tinted gusher a hundred feet high.  The town is practically floating on vino.  This is the home of the evermore popular Verdejo white wine of the Rueda region.  Here, many residents may give the appearance of modesty, they often look just a notch above a homesteader, but they are so filthy rich they don’t know what to do with their money.  The fact that their homes have a tendency to look like county jails rather than mansions has more to do with the fact that the Castilian mentality is not fond of ostentation.  A stroll around the El Escorial palace built at the height of Spain’s empire should help illustrate that.  It also helps keep everyone in the dark on just how much you have.

        In any event, in search of some bread as well as a little culture, Julia and I walked up to the tahona. The streets of La Fuente de Pedro Naharro, like so many of these towns, have little to offer the tourist aesthetically, at least on the surface. Yet, it is the very simplicity of the walls, entrances, windows, colors and pavements, it is their almost total lack of charm which, in my opinion, gives them a charming authenticity that is worth taking a second and third look at. I just find these town irresistable.  When I say these things, people sometimes look at me the way they do individuals who sit on street corners an bark like a dog, but I can’t help it.  La Mancha is so alluring it’s almost hypnotizing. Javi would later ask me why I take pictures of tired tobacco stores and weathered frameless windows, and I told him, “because this is the invisible Spain I love so much. These are the minor details that are so much a part of this culture that we, and especially you, see every day but no longer bother to see anymore.”

         That tahona as a business, on the other hand, may become truly invisible if things don’t change soon. Unfortunately, it may be the fact that they do change that makes the threat all that more real. A tahona, we may as well get to this point, is nothing more than a place with a large oven where goods are baked, especially, bread, which isn’t necessarily the place where they sell it, known as the panadería. That’s the technical difference, but in modern times, things have become vaguer. Many panaderías now use small electric ovens designed specifically to finish baking half-baked (if you’ll excuse the word) dough in order to serve warm and fresh loaves which have become so popular in Spain these days. Are these tahonas? Not really. There are also places where they actually prepare the bread from scratch and bake it on the premises, but owners call it a panadería, not a tahona. At least that’s what happens in a city or large town.

        The fact is, the term “tahona” appears to be slowly falling into disuse, but it’s in a village where things tend to be treated differently. Here they are almost like miniature factories, and the goods they produce may be dispatched directly from the shop itself or distributed to grocery stores, or other outlets.

       In keeping with the surroundings, the tahona in La Fuente is so unassuming you wouldn’t even know it’s there. A small stairway leads up to the ubiquitous bead curtains draping from every door in those towns. Inside on the left was a small room with a counter and empty shelves, as if I had just entered a market from a former soviet state.

       The two men at the looked uncannily like a comedy team. One short and, well, robust. The other taller and, while not thin, certainly lower in weight. And he wore glasses which gave home a distinguished air, no easy feat considering he was surrounded by glossy balls of dough. The tall one ably took the spheres and with one thumb managed to mold them into ribbed doughnuts, not unlike French crullers, with an ease and precision, it seems hardly possible that any machine could best him.

        The shorter man led me to the oven a kiln so large it sailed up to the ceiling. It was covered in white tile except for the mighty iron mouth which read “Juan Ferré Matheu”, the name of the manufacturer. The company started production in 1893, but it has since ceased to operate. Fired by wood, the baker swears “it’s been on continuously for fifty years.” I wasn’t sure if this was a bit of an exaggeration, but after a long look around the place it would seem that very little else had changed since 1966, so I could see no reason for their extinguishing the embers for the sake of novelty.

          “And we can’t turn it off.”

          “Why not?”

       “Too dangerous?”  That made me step back a little.  Why?  Had years of nonstop usage turned the kiln into a nuclear oven?  Would failure cause the grapes in the nearby vineyards to glow at night?

         “What would happen?”

         He shook his hand ominously.  “I don’t want to think of what would happen.”

       “Me neither.”

       In the meantime, they just kept on baking.  Behind us was a wooden shelf with a pile or two of French-bread style loaves which customers could walk up to, pick out and pay for. Next to that stood a tall cart, twenty or more levels high, stacked with black metal trays, all bent out of shape, laden with rows of oblong cookies.

        “So, you make those too?” The question was obvious.

       “Yeap. About 70 to 80 bags a day. The doughnuts too. Look.” He opened the door to the hearth and inside was a large plate which could be rotated to maximize space. “Then I use this wheel,” located on the outside, “to turn it. That’s all there is to it.”

      “I can make cookies, cakes, bread, even pizzas. Even roast, but we aren’t supposed to do it. Affects the flavor.”

       “He also cremates dead bodies for a cheap price,” joked a customer as he passed by.

         “Don’t listen to him! What a comment!”

      Everything about the bakery teams with craftsmanship, and technology appears to have very little place there, no matter how rudimentary it is. The thermometer to the left was busted and my guess it hadn’t been in operation since the days Franco was alive. Accurate temperature readings are normally vital to baked goods. How did they do it?

        “How? That’s easy. I just open the door to the oven, stick my hand in like this,” he demonstrated it personally in case I didn’t understand. There must have been something about the look on my face that suggested to him I needed visuals.

      “And I wait for a few seconds. If I have to pull it out, that means it’s very hot and less time.”

       Well, there was no argument that logic fully supported his technique. It also probably explained the wide range of toasted cookies. But that was the fun of homemade products.

      He took us around back to a room which served as little more than a playground for people who suffer from Diogenes syndrome. A solid two inches of myriad crap blanketed the floor, but there was one item of interest at the back…a projector.

       “This used to be the where we would hold community events,” the ‘used to’ part was self-evident. “This was the local movie theater. You can see where the holes for the projector came out of on the wall. They’ve been sealed since then. Can you see them?”

       I could, even though most people no longer did. “What will become of this place when you retire?” It didn’t take a lot to see that day was not far off for either of them.

       He shrugged his shoulders. “God knows.”


August 17, 2016

Where the hell do you think you’re going now señor Brian? 5

“Julia!” yelled back Javi to his wife before he left for the finca to prepare the country house for the next guests. “Take Brian to the tahona. He’s gonna love it.”

        “Javi, you’ve told me this 100 times. I will!”

        “Just wanna make sure. I know he’ll love it.”

        “Don’t worry. We’ll go see it.”

      “Brian!” he called up to me, but I was on the living room couch with bags under my eyes and begging for a little more rest. It was my second full night back from the United States and anyone who has been in my position knows that is when the effects of jetlag are at their most devastating. There is no reconciliation with slumber because there is no slumber at all. Unconsciousness departs and forces you to face the unforgiving drawbacks of prolonged lack of rest. It’s a form of torture that long-distance travelers must accept with dignity.

       In theory, country life often offers some measures to counter the problem. The climate in the center of Spain helps too. It is bone dry and that means temperature changes swing like a pendulum. The blistering daytime heat of a 105ºF can vanish once the sun goes down, and you may even find yourself reaching for a sweatshirt before the evening’s over. That’s also good for the grapes, by the way, so that they don’t stress out. In Madrid, by contrast, the heat is absorbed by the concrete throughout the hours of light and then radiated outward well into the early morning hours. The Spanish often compare it to an oven and after 25 years of on-the-job field work here, I can personally attest to the accuracy of the analogy. If I were a piece of dough, I might start swelling at any moment.

         And the absence of city life. The outdoor cafés in Madrid are filled with customers who feel the need to talk to each other from distances of two feet as if they all were used to living next to an airport runway. And I also have the fortune of having the city send a fleet of sanitation trucks to my corner to recreate the Battle of Britain every night. Not once, but twice. Then there is a third round at two in the morning, but I’m not sure what that’s for. All I know is that shatters your REM phase.

       Javi’s home was the perfect place to combat these problems.  The peace, quiet and coolness should have made nodding off a fairly straightforward proposal.

         I was sharing a room with Javi’s eight-year-old son, Alex, as his room had the only available extra bed. Our friendship had gone back a long way, as far back as the day he was born. I had spent some time in Javi’s apartment years before when Alex was just three and he was in the midst of his negative stage in life, a period when the answer to everything is an unequivocal “no”, for which I then baptized him as the one and only “Mr. No.” It’s basically stuck since then.

         To many of my friends’ kids, I am the “Tito” Brian, which sounds like I am a former dictator of a Balkan nation, but it’s generally just an affectionate name for a faux uncle (“tío” in Spanish) who is kind of a loser and a loner at the same time.
Lying on our backs on our respective beds with the light on, we discussed the general state of affairs in our lives. Actually, we focused more on his situation, since listening to mine would have run the risk of scarring him for life.

         “How is the summer going?”


         “What have you been doing?”

       “Stuff.” That was a good sign. Kids who say “stuff” show promise. It’s a universal trait of noncommittal communication.

         “I hear you have camp tomorrow? Looking forward to it?”


         “Why not?”

         “Don’t know anything about it and I want to stay home.” A noncomformist, I thought. Good for him.

          “Well, give it a shot. You never know.”

          “I have no choice,” he admitted. A realist, I thought. Makes sense.

          “That’s a good point. Let’s try to get some sleep.”

          “Can we turn off the light? Mom wants it on because she thinks I’m afraid of the dark. But moms are always thinking we are afraid of everything.”

          A courageous kid. A sensible one too. “That’s fine with me. Night.”

        Alex wasn’t out like a light, he was out before the light went out. Kids are often like dogs. They can just click on and off like that. I can normally do the same these days because I’m getting older and don’t care about anything anymore. But this wasn’t going to happen that night. Every silver lining has a cloud.

         You see, making the most of the coolness of the night air requires opening a window which, in addition to letting the lower temperatures in, also allows for a lot of flying creatures in search of human blood. Mosquitos aren’t attracted to everyone, according to studies, so I guess I happen to be one of the unfortunate individuals they find irresistible. The Spanish like to say, “that’s because your blood is sweeter,” and while this certainly has nothing to do with anything – I tend to take any culture’s folkloric medicine with a great deal of suspicion, apparently there really are a number of scientific reasons why those bastards go after some people more than others and make lying in a bed at night about as pleasant as being buried up to your neck in sand.

         Here are some things that seem to contribute to this differentiation: blood type (O, is the classification of preference – mine is A+ and one of the least appealing, so you could scratch the “sweet blood” thing), carbon dioxide emission (generally larger people are greater producers, an overabundance of skin bacteria (that I could not measure, beer (certainly a probable contributor, but experts question this point for a lot of reasons – I just don’t know what they are), pregnancy (well that speaks for itself), clothing color (maybe), sweat and body odor (now we were getting closer) and, as usual, just plain genetics – the universal culprit of just about everything that goes on with us.

       Regardless, considering that just about any factor, save being knocked up, could have contributed to the invitation, the point is, word got around the insect neighborhood that I was in town, and before you knew it, the room had more airborne objects swirling around than Dubai International Airport. What’s more, the little peckers would hover right up to the ear and give me warning of the slaughter that was to come. They would say it with that high-pitched hum that induce a handful of ideas so violent and evil in nature the fact that any human could have conceived them would be enough to land them in jail. To avoid the bloodbath, I had to turn on the light, apologize to Alex, wait patiently while the bugs unwittingly alighted on a wall and SMACK! incrust them in the surface. Seven deaths later, I turned off the light, fell asleep only to be jolted awake by my hand smacking my own body. It seems that a second, and possibly a third, wave of squadrons had arrived and were taking advantage of the fact I had lowered my guard. Y closed the window to prevent any more intruders, but that just increased the temperature by some 20º in that many minutes. Jetlag did the rest. The flying vampires didn’t seem to find to find my roommate as tasty, so I left him to defend for himself and plodded downstairs to the couch, where it was cooler, the WIFI was within reach and I could listen to documentaries on YouTube until I faded off.

         “Yes, Javi,” I answered with a scruffy voice not yet oiled by its first coffee. “I definitely want to see the tahona.”


August 2, 2016

Where the hell do you think you’re going now señor Brian? 4

While Javi’s family’s vineyards spread out for miles in the province of Toledo, his family actually lives in a town over the border in Cuenca called La Fuente de Pedro Naharrro, the Fountain of Pedro Naharro, a curious and elegant name for an otherwise very ordinary town. To get there, you simply get on the 2-lane nacional, head for Corral de Almaguer, take a left, race off into the night down another straightaway towards Horcajo de Santiago, take another left and speed away to La Fuente, as they call it affectionately. 25 minutes of driving all said and told. At nighttime, when the traffic is light, it’s pretty much a breeze and it invites you to step on the accelerator a little more. The road knows few curves, the view is clear, and the driving is easy. Taking the back roads of Spain can sometimes be one of the most pleasurable and entertaining forms of getting around the country and the only true way of getting to know the nuances of the land. The nacionales, as they are called, are generally in excellent shape, but the regional and local roads can be a little more dicey. Still, I can’t think of a better way to experience the country.

               Spain’s highway system as a whole, I should point out, has surely come a long since the days I first came to live back in the early 90s. A simple look at statistics should help illustrate the point: in 1970 there were a meager 203kms of highway in the entire country. That’s about the distance between New York City and Hartford, Connecticut. By the time I had settled down here in 1991, the figure had shot up to 3,793kms, but even then not one of the six major motorways that radiated from Madrid like bicycle spokes was completed. Any long-distance trip required at least one section of knuckle-whitening circulating along a two-lane road while trying to overtake a truck full of wooden planks before getting slammed head-on by another hauling cement blocks. My premature greying, in addition to genetics, is due to this harrowing experience over the years.

               By 2014, drivers could enjoy over 15,000kms of highway to help them sail around Spain and reach most major destinations in a fraction of the time it once took. And in one piece. You see, one of the most profound consequences of this improvement in the nation’s infrastructure has been a gradual reduction in the fatalities on the road. Obviously there were several factors that have led to this decline, such as an increase in the average age of the average driver, more effective speed traps, greater awareness of the dangers of driving while under the influence, buckling up on a regular basis, and better built vehicles, but it’s hard to deny the importance of this continuous upgrade of the road network.

                As in many countries, years ago the numbers were frightening. In 1960, there were a paltry 1 million vehicles on the road, and the poor conditions led to a staggering 1,300 deaths. By 1989, the number of deceased peaked to record numbers, though a little research suggested no one really knows how many people died on the road that year. One source indicated 3,086 victims, another put the figure at an astronomical 9,344, but I am inclined to believe the DGT (the equivalent of the DMV) statistics which reported 5,940. While that might sound stunning, consider the fact the last year the United States saw those numbers was in 1914.

               Now, with more than 31 million cars purring around, a mere 1,126 people lost their lives. Yes, that’s lower than the 1960 figure when there were 30 million fewer vehicles. Still too high, say some, but the 3.6 victims per 100,000 is one of the lowest rates in Europe, and it looks impressive when compared to 10.1/100,000 in the U.S.

              Where are these lethal run-ins bound to happen? On the secondary roads. Annually, between 75-90% of all deaths by vehicle occurred in these otherwise pristine, bucolic, peaceful lanes. Such violence amid such serene scenery boggles the mind, and nobody better than Javi knew that. His father was picked off by an oncoming car at an intersection in Horcajo some twenty years before and was killed in the act.

                A grim reminder as we approached that there is never really any need to hurry home.


July 30, 2016

Where the hell do you think you’re going now señor Brian? 3

“¡Hombre!” Javi was next to the car before I had even gotten out. I stood up and we hugged. “Welcome to La Mancha! Land of the Quixote!”

Like any good man from this region, Javi was fiercely proud of his homeland and every time you went to his place he would greet you as if it were the first time.  “Take a deep breath,” he drew in an atmosphere of air and invited me to do the same. “Nothing like it,” he howled. “Have you seen the vineyards?”

“A million times.”

“I can never get tired of looking at them, can you?”

“No, never.” That was true, but even if it hadn’t been, I wouldn’t dare.

“And the zucchini. You wouldn’t believe how far it’s come along.”

“Actually I came to see your place. The new casa rural.”

“Haven’t you seen it yet?”

I sighed. “No, I haven’t. I was hoping to.”

“I could have sworn…coño…I’ll have to give you the grand tour. Come on!” He turned and walked through the new stone gate. “Mamá!! Brian’s here. Can you believe he’s never been to the place yet?”

“Well, if you’d invite your friends over from time to time, it would be nice,” she called back from inside the house. “Then they could see the place and recommend it to their friends.”

Oh, I don’t know. It certainly was a nice looking place after all. Two houses, not just one. I guess if they were going to get into construction, they might as well make the most of it and build a village. One was a handsome three-bedroom deal for the guests, with room for up to eleven people, I am told, if you squeeze everyone in Spanish style. It is ideal for couples or groups of friends.

The place looked pretty snazzy, with a porch that looks out over the vineyards giving everything a sort of Tuscany feel to it. Just the way I had told them to do. Good to see they listened to me every now and then. This house was connected by an overhead roof patio to another building almost identical in shape. It was for “eventos”, gatherings, parties, shindigs, bachelor weekends, hen weekends, even English classes. “I want you to teach the executives English. Who couldn’t learn English with Cencibel right next to you? I’ll even pay you. 100€ for the weekend sound good?”

“That’s about three or four hours of work. What about the rest of the weekend? Plus, I’ve got a job. I’d love to, but I’ve got a job already.”

“Let me show you the kitchen. Maybe that will change your mind.” Industrial. Plated, pleated, shod and sheeted with stainless steel and a battery of new appliances. Gas stoves….the only way to go. Now we’re talking.

I had to admit they had done a great job turning a one acre lot of land from something only a tractor or a dingo would love into a home away from home for the urban dweller with the cash to spend on getting out of town to look at some trees and eat and drink until they passed out. They even laid down a lawn, a rarity in those parts. I was impressed, absolutely, but by far the biggest surprise, and one which I am glad they went ahead with though I had been consulted, was the swimming pool, a welcome addition to any vineyard if you ask me, especially in La Mancha during the summer months. It’s the ideal way of keeping from withering away like a sunflower in August.

“It was my idea,” claimed Javi. “I knew otherwise the guests would be sizzling like overcooked pancetta if we didn’t. No one wants that to happen.”

You see, the decision to open a casa rural in those parts was a bit risky because no one really thinks of going to La Mancha for a weekend away unless their family is from there or they are following in the footsteps of Don Quixote, as some foreigners do, in which case, after about three days they begin to wonder just what the hell they are doing there. A pool was the saving grace. Javi was right on the mark. And it was in this watering hole that we could wallow and wade, discuss American and Spanish politics without breaking down into tears, sip a Spanish beer, and swat off an occasional insect which also wanted to share the refreshing atmosphere and somehow felt my head was the perfect runway.

Afterwards, Javier proudly showed me around the new premises. La Mancha always improves with the aging of the day. As the sun goes down, the reds become redder, the greens deeper, the browns and yellows richer. The sky starts to stretch out forever. They say, with an immense degree of certainty, that the universe is actually expanding at an ever-increasing rate. You get the sense you can actually see that happening before your very eyes right there and then.

Dinner was Mediterranean style, at least the way the Americans envision an outdoor Mediterranean dinner in the summer. Vegetables were picked straight from the garden, washed and carried to the kitchen. We grilled the zucchini and a couple of green peppers. We took an onion and a somewhat weary-looking head of lettuce and the reddest juiciest tomato you’ve ever seen or tasted. Outstanding.
Darkness came. We pulled the table from the deck out onto the lawn so we could feel the most of the fresh air and get the best view of the stars, which were out in legion. Javi was there with his wife and son, along with the grandmothers, a sister and brother, son inlaws, and a handful of cousins. All that was missing was for a few guards to be posted around the grounds shouldering shotguns to give it the full cosa nostra effect.

Javi gazed up into space after the final slivers of daylight had slipped away below the horizon. “Just look at that. Look at the Big Dipper. Big enough to carry a butt load of eggplants. You’ve never seen anything like that in…what’s the name of that state again?”


“That’s right, ‘Connecticut’.” He did his best to replicate the sound so that it sounded somewhat like it came from the mouth of a native speaker and not a squirrel choking on acorns. “That’s a tough one, I tell you. Too soft too. You need something more macho like…”

“La Mancha,” I muttered to myself quietly.

“La Mancha! Yes. There’s a name for you. Rugged and mysterious. It’s no nonsense. No fucking around.”

I didn’t even bother to check for the look on Javi’s mother face or wait for a disapproving, “Javier, we don’t use that language at the dinner table.” It was never going to happen. Swearing has become such a standard part of everyday language here that unless you step right up to the queen and call her a slut to her face, you would be hard-pressed to find someone admonish “Hey, that’s taking things a little far.” Foul language has come to substitute all kinds of forms of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, comparisons, superlatives…even conjunctions.

I didn’t want to feel out of step with the others and agreed. “Absolutely. De puta madre. (the ‘mother’s whore’ – or basically ‘fucking great’”

“Amen,” sang out the grandmother.


July 28, 2016

Where the hell do you think you’re going now señor Brian? 2

If a fear of heights restricts your movements during your holidays, the La Mancha region is the place for you. Nothing about it suggests altitude will be an issue for the victims of vertigo. No driving off cliffs. No avalanches. No treacherous gorges. No terrifying edges of any kind. Suiciders will die of frustration trying to find a lofty ledge to plunge to their death from; it is simply not an option. They’ll be better off going for the knife, a gun or grab or a handful of pills. My home state of Connecticut, which boasts a hardly elevated Bear Mountain and its height of 700 meters and a prominence of a fearsome 100 meters, could be considered alpine by comparison.

     And yet despite this celebration of flatness, the land doesn’t always stretch out like a tightly fitted sheet over an army bunk bed. It kind of rolls here and there gently, allowing the traveler enough of a perspective to enjoy the orography without fear. You have the red clay earth providing miles of foundation for the vines and olive trees, the bales of straw firmly laid upon the golden fields, the deep green bushy heads of the miles of vineyards looking like a legion of Secondary Actor Bobs, shading the little creatures of the land, and the majestic Holmes oaks that emerge from the fields like solitary wise men. Or friendless losers. Those are the trees that produce the acorns that feed the pigs that get slaughtered, salted, aged, sold, sliced, and consumed by people like you and me. People often note the nutty flavor and many don’t know where it comes from. There you have it. A bit of mindless trivia.

     Each of those trees is registered in a bureaucratic log somewhere, penned into a leather bound volume of oddities or typed in snug into the memory of a hard drive or two. They cannot be touched without the permission of the regional government. If you were a dog, you’d be wary of peeing on one.  As a result, every time I walk by one, I poke it bark or snap off a twig as a sign of defiance. Rebellion against the establishment.

     It was my six thousandth time at the finca, more or less, where Javier and his family had their 150 acres of vineyards.   That may sound impressive, but when set against the some 400,000 acres of vines planted in all of La Mancha, it’s a mere patch for these parts.

      Before, the only real structure was a shed with no electricity or running water, a warehouse for storing agricultural machinery and whatnot, as well as a dozen farm animals or so. We used to broil our chorizos, chicken and steaks over the fireplace, and even whip up a delicious rice with rabbit dish in a deep iron pot, seasoned with thyme and rosemary stripped from their respective bushes nearby. I know it sounds Wyoming wild and all, but considering the Comanche were known to drink the stale water from a bison’s stomach to keep hydrated, I feel it was still fairly tame from that standpoint.

     This was my first time at the new finca, now a casa rural, a country house you can rent out, pay loads of money to enjoy rural life for just about long enough until you can’t stand it anymore.  Country house tourism is so popular in Spain it has become big business, enormous business, and it has managed to endure even the worst of the economic crisis.  Javi and his family actually built their own just the year before, with three bedrooms and a kitchen and living room. It’s called Montehigueras, Fig Tree Hill, which defies all logic because there are no hills in that part, and if there ever was a fig produced on that land it has been long since dispatched to some unknown stomach, or plucked from the soil by a bird with a sweet beak.   Apparently that’s the name of the land, so who am I to question it?

     As usual, I packed a little more than I really needed. For a person with a reputation for being a total disaster, I take certain pride in the fact I try to foresee any and every unforeseeable eventuality when it comes to short-term travel. You just never know when you might go for a swim or get caught in a blizzard. For an excursion of one day, I stuffed two pairs of shorts, a pair of jeans, two t-shirts, two pairs of underwear, docksiders, running shoes, flip-flops, three pairs of socks and a sweatshirt, in case it cooled off at night, which, in the 100º+ daily heat in the center of the Iberian peninsula was an unlikelihood, but you never knew. Ah, and I also added three bottles of wine, which Javi had asked me to bring along. Javi’s family owns two very large wineries in La Mancha, but the fact is, you can never drink enough of the stuff in this region. No one can. There is so much that much of it is burned and turned into industrial alcohol. I took along a chardonnay from Somontano, a rosé from Cigales and a red from Valdepeñas figuring that all three colors would collide by the end of the evening.

      I have to admit I was a little bummed about going to the finca. Kind of miffed. Somewhat snubbed. After all, I had grown up (Spain-speaking) honoring the simplicity of the land, eating with basic utensils, napping under pine trees, regarding the vineyards and saying, “don’t you think it would be a good idea build a real house here? One with a big kitchen for the grastronómica.”

     Yes, I like to say it was my idea. Then they took it, built it in record time, and not once did I get a call, nary a whatsapp, to get invited over to review the blueprints, survey the land, oversee the works. Not once. Then, before I knew it, it was up and running. “The place is great. Come and see it,” Javi ordered me.

     “I know,” I muttered and wanted to add, I told you so.

     “We put a big industrial kitchen in there. You’re gonna love it!”

     “All right, all right. Let me be the judge of that.”