Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Posts Tagged ‘Madrid’

Madrid,Spain

December 8, 2014

The 30 Days of Christmas – Gluttony in Times of Need

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The Puente de Diciembre is a time for planning. Planning everything you have to do for the next five weeks, and survive.

     Got my long-distance Christmas cards out a week before for the first time in years. I did that right after throwing last year’s cards which I just happened upon underneath a pile of books and realized I had never sent out.

       Presents are on the way. I haven’t bought one, but they are on the way.

      But what I’m really concerned about is making sure I have all of my Christmas meals in order before they start, which is tomorrow. The take up a large part of any Madrid resident’s social life and budget, and now that everyone pretends the crisis is over for some reason, spirits are high. Unemployment is dipping below 25% (don’t worry, it never was that high to begin with, especially if remove the 18-25 year-old labor force, which never worked that much anyway) and word from abroad is that everyone is slowly pulling out of hole. The government is even going to return 25% of the 7.2% of my salary it took away from all teachers two years ago. Without interest, of course.
That’s why it is especially important to sort things out eating-wise. Here’s what I have line up so far:
Dec. 9 – Dinner with my gastronomic club
Dec. 12 – Dinner with other teachers
Dec. 16 – Dinner with the school teachers from the language school
Dec. 19 – Lunch with the entire school
Dec. 20 – Christmas party with the gastronomic club
Dec. 21 – Christmas dinner with friends
Dec. 24 – Christmas aperitivo with the gastronomic club
Dec. 24 – Christmas Eve dinner with my Spanish family
Dec. 25 – Christmas Day lunch with my other half’s family
Dec. 31 – New Year’s Eve Dinner with the other half’s family, if I behaved myself the first time.
Jan 1 – New Year’s Day lunch with my Spanish family, if I have behaved myself at Christmas
Jan 5 – Three Kings (The Twelfth Night) cocktail party
Jan 5 – Three Kings (The Twelfth Night) dinner
Jan 6 – Three Kings Day lunch
* Any last-minute celebrations have yet to appear on the agenda.

     On a number of accounts, this was cause for worry, not the least being my health. But this was Christmas in Spain, and years of training had made me a hardened veteran. A new war was about to be waged.

Madrid

April 21, 2014

Madrid, Mon Amour

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

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

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

Images of Spain

February 28, 2014

IMAGES OF SPAIN: The “telefonillo”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         4)  Neither side can hear the other.

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

          “¿Diga?”

          “Who’s this?”

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

           “I’m in 5B.”

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

         “Can you open me up?”

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

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

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

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

Madrid,Uncategorized,What's happening in Madrid

September 21, 2013

A Relaxing Cup of Café con Leche

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I try to avoid getting involved in these matters, but sometimes I just can’t resist.  Madrid’s mayor, Ana Botella, made some recent remarks about the city when campaigning for its candidacy to host the Olympics.  Madrid got bounced in the first round of the final selection, and Ana Botella became the brunt of countless jokes regarding her seemingly ragged use of English.

      The catch phrase is now “a relaxing cup of café con leche (coffee with milk)”, and it has become so famous that even my little 3rd-graders know about it, and so infamous that you can now buy coffee mugs online with the sentence stamped on them in different colors and fonts.

      It has been ridiculed and parodied beyond belief, with jokes and videos spreading like wildfire far and wide throughout the social networks .  Such was the uproarious laughter that I finally caved in and decided to check out on Youtube the video and endure the suffering for myself and by myself, in the comfort of my living room.

      I’ll be as brief as possible, and resort to my expertise as a teacher to provide a fairly balanced opinion.  To be honest, it wasn’t great but it was a far cry from the disaster that I expected given the backlash it received.  Ana spoke with a heavy accent, had several fairly serious pronunciation issues, and clearly hasn’t mastered the language.  That explains the forced diction and the artificial gestures.  Basically she looked as if she was trying to pull off the tough task of speaking in public in a foreign language and she did the best she could.  For the most part the speech was standard, not very inspired, promotional garble which was delivered with difficulty.  And the famous Spanglish that everyone is laughing at hardly exists.  The speech lasts 2.50 seconds and more than halfway through it, she spits out the now notorious “a relaxing cup of café con leche in the Plaza Mayor.”  She mentions the Madrid de los Austrias, and immediately adds what that all means in English. The rest of the talk was given in English.

      First of all, you can call a cup of coffee “relaxing”.  Several “experts” from Spain have expressed to me their utter disbelief that Botella would use such an adjective to describe a cup of joe, but the fact is you can.  Just to clarify that one.  As for the use of “café con leche”, that was just a little friendly use of local language.  Probably not the best choice, but still, even I could see that.  Plus, it’s not that easy to translate.

      Verdict: the speech wasn’t topnotch, and Botella’s English needs work, but it wasn’t horrible either and certainly not worthy of the thrashing it took.

      So, after listening to two weeks of relentless criticism and watching the clip myself, I have come to the conclusion that the event has accentuated two very grave and present facts: Spain’s English level is still wanting; and God help you if you make a mistake because if you do you’ll become the laughing stock of the nation.

      As for the first part, there is nothing surprising about that. Spain has for years suffered from an inferiority complex when it comes to speaking this language.  It’s the famous “asignatura pendiente”, as they say here.  Back in the 90s, most parents came to me saying that they couldn’t help their kids because they had learned French in school.  Then came the gradual switch to English, which, though taught throughout a student’s life, produced poor results.  Poor teaching and general disregard for the language.  On top of that, as many will tell you, Spain dubs all of its TV programs and movies.  The industry is one of the finest in the world, but it does have its downside.  It prevents youths from picking up the language naturally, and, what’s worse, it fosters an aversion toward the language.  Few people spoke it, and not very well at that.  And I am talking about the capital.  Once out in the smaller cities or in the country, forget it.

       The effects of the past faulty educational setup and social antipathy are still being felt today.  A recent report rated Spain in the middle ground when it comes to competence in English, 18th, to be exact, and behind some 15 other European nations. That’s not so hot.  But I am here to tell you that, despite the rejection and the mediocre teaching techniques, it is heads and tails above what it used to be.  With the arrival of bilingual education (Madrid is nearly at the forefront of this movement) things are turning around considerably.  We are still talking about a change that will require a generation or two to come into its fullest fruition, but it will happen. I am not concerned.

      What does unsettle me is the vicious blasting over practically nothing.  I browsed through about the first 100 comments and couldn’t find a single one that had anything fair to say about it.  The chiding was merciless, but that behavior is as traditional here as watching soccer. The Spanish are often the first to admit that they don’t like to speak English because of their sense of embarrassment about saying the wrong thing.  This I find amusing because their love of swearing shows they don’t seem to have any qualms about blurting out in Spanish, “Holy shit! That motherfucker is really pissing me off,” in front of their grandmother.

      Then again, after the berating Ana Botella received, I don’t blame them for not wanting to utter a single word of English, because look what happens to you when you slip up.  I would shut my mouth too.

      So suddenly everyone is an expert in English.  In some cases even more so than the English themselves.  Take the Comunidad de Madrid’s standardized exam to check on the progress of its bilingual program.  The actually exam itself was Cambridge’s Young Learners of English tests which are recognized by the European Union as valid measurements of a child’s level of the language.  The exam has three parts – Speaking, Listening, and a combined part on Reading & Writing – which are graded from 1 (being the worst) to 5 shields.  That means a student can receive a total of 15 shields.

      Cambridge oddly asserts that there is no passing or failing in these exams.  However, if you receive ten or more shields, then you are ready to go on to the next level.  Hmm.  I’ll have to think about that one.

      In any event, if you can achieve that number, then you have what is considered to be an A1 level.  Cambridge does not specify a minimum in any one category, as long as you obtain ten.  This standard is admitted by the European Union.

      The Comunidad de Madrid has decided that it would use the Cambridge exams but assess students differently in two ways:

        1)    Evaluate just the Speaking and Listening, requiring a total of 7 shields to pass, and 4 have to be in speaking, and at least 3 have to be in listening.  So, in short, they require at least a 70% on a test, and, in some cases, that isn’t enough, since if the speaking is a three and the listening is a four, you don’t pass.  On one occasion, a student had a 5 on listening and a 3 on speaking (yes, that’s 80%), and failed.

        2)    They could also assess all three parts in which a pupil needed to obtain 11 shields (and at least 4 in speaking), to pass.  In theory, a child could get up to 13 out of 15 shields and still be turned down.  How’s that for motivating.

      Of course, none of this has anything to do with how Cambridge looks at it, and that’s considering it’s their test.  The Comunidad de Madrid simply decided that it was going to prove to the world that its standard was tougher than the rest without really justifying it at all.

      This kind of cockiness is known in Spanish as “chulería”, and in Madrid, it’s as common and typical as a relaxing cup of café con leche.

 

Madrid

September 14, 2013

The Gift of English

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

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

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

June 30, 2013

Great Spanish Inventions 2: The Chupa Chups

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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 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.

Twenty-Five Years and Still Running

May 1, 2013

25 Years in Spain: Early Morning and the Birth of a Nation

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Then there was light.  Not much, but light all the same.  Any universe can start that way.  Mine was daily.

When I first came toSpain, I treated electricity with the same degree of carelessness that I held regard for when it came to any kind of utility.  In fact, “utility” was the ideal word for the service.  No frills, just a jolt of energy or a rush of water to keep things running in the household.  Like any young American back in the 80s who had barely been exposed to the efforts of mainstream ecology, energy conservation was for geeks and Californians and not to be taken too seriously…just like geeks and Californians. Saving the Earth’s natural resources was lame, and if you had to do it, the last thing you were going to do is tell someone about it.

            My disregard for cutting back on consumption rattled the Post-Civil War Spanish generation.  My host-family mother shadowed me around the house clicking off all those switches I would leave on when I departed from the room.

       And in the morning, during the winter inMadridthe house would remain dark until nearly eight in the morning, only a brushstroke of light might erupt from the kitchen or bathroom and cast some way of finding my bearings in the hall.  Back home, my brother is capable of draining national resources with just a casual flip of the switch, but here, every watt counts.  Especially back then.

            The reason behind this was that utilities for so long were pricey as the economy tried to pull itself out of the wake of a terrible civil war and decades of isolation.  That turnaround began in the 1960s, but Spanish society by that time had spawned a generation or two of very cautious consumers who had been nurtured on rationed services.  That meant that even as things began to improve, few had it in them to spend freely, let alone splurge meaninglessly.  That was the essence. Spending had to be meaningful and when so, sparing.  Spaniards were savers forcibly by habit, not by nature.  The recent generations of spendthrifts are proof of that.

            There you have it.  My morning walk to the bathroom to start my every day, every day.

In Spanish,Twenty-Five Years and Still Running

April 21, 2013

25 Years in Spain: Planes, Trains and Automobiles 8

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As luck would have it, I didn’t have to go through the dreadful process of becoming a certified private driver in this country at the cost of hours of classes and dents in my wallet.  Law and the lawmakers would change that no long afterwards, but when I was still a stripling in this town, you could mosey on down to places like the RACE offices, which used to be on Bravo Murillo I believe, and fork over 5,000 pesetas for someone in the office to give you one.  They just assumed you knew how to drive.

            But first, and there always is a “but first” in this country, you had to locate a nearby medical center where you could undergo a test known as a psicotécnico, which sounded to me at first like they wanted to hook me up to a bunch of wires, show me blot images while playing  Tom Jones’ songs in the background and ask how I was feeling.

         It turned out to be just a fancy name for a physical.

         And not a very physical one at that.  I didn’t have to sprint a hundred yards in under 12 seconds, but they did look into certain fairly important sensorial qualities like eyesight and eye-hand coordination. In other words, could I see and just how much or if a train were coming as I crossed the tracks, would I know what to do.

         But first, because there always had to be a first, I had to pay for this.  This cost me in the neighborhood of about 5,000 pesetas, or what amounted to about a day’s work for me.

         The eye test was complete but not the end of everything.  Essentially they told me everything I already knew.  They wrote on a paper that I needed glasses, which I knew since that was the feeling I always got about myself when I took off my specs.  They added that I should I have a replacement pair available at all times, which is true, but I don’t.

         Up to that point, the test had proceeded without serious challenge, but the good people at the clinic had a trick up their sleeve which they had failed to inform me of.  It was time for the eye-hand coordination game to see how good the rest of my reflexes were.  For some reason I figured tat this would amount to little more that a rubber hammer being thudded below my kneecap, but the office had something slightly more sophisticated in mind. They were video games.

         There exist a number of tests, and on this occasion I got to face one.  It consisted of watching a ball appear from the left side of the screen, then disappear beneath a kind of block.  I was supposed to judge when the right time would be for the ball to stop before crashing into a wall on the right side.  To do this I was supposed to press a button at the moment I felt was right.  Graphically speaking it had all of the appeal of one of those 1970s prototype video games, but that didn’t matter because the reality was it had the power to determine my future as a driver.

         I had always assumed that my hours of Friday timewasting at the local arcade in my hometown would somehow come in handy later on in life, and this seemed like the moment had presented itself.  The best place was in the bowling lanes.  Yes, Greenwich had both a bowling lane and an arcade.  They happened to be in the same place.  This may have been a concerted effort to confine all cheesiness to one place, but we knew where the cheesiness was.  So, instead of making the most of my weekend to get a little studying in, I generally waned away my youth before a video screen uselessly making imaginary spaceships disappear until they did the same to me.

        I figured this bit of early training should have been enough to ease me through the test and probably contributed to my nonchalant attitude at the clinic. That was until the inspector looked at my results and said, “Please take this seriously.”

       “What?”

        “You’ve crashed your balls into the wall at least three times.  According to this you’re not fit to ride a tricycle.”

       So, I did, and after some further concentration managed to pass.

        Then I went back and requested the new driver’s license.  But first, and there always is a “but first”, I had to fork over another 5,000 pesetas as a general fee for no particular reason.  It’s supply and demand.  I wanted to drive, and only they could get make that happen.   So, it was another 5,000 pesetas for the system.

      A few days later, my friend back at RACE handed me my pink foldable driver’s license and said that I now had permission to drive amongst the other 38 million Spaniards, which I felt was a reasonable offer for just a few buckaroos.

       All I needed to do was learn.

Madrid,Spain

February 24, 2013

Touring Madrid 1 Part 1

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In a recent piece I did on markets inMadrid, I got a note from a friend reminding not to forget the alternative market at the old Tobacco Company Factory in Embajadores.  The Tabacalera, as they call it in Spanish.  It was a nice sunny day and I decided to hike across theRetiroParkand see it myself.  On the way, I peered through the windows of the library at theReinaSofíaMuseumhoping I might get a chance to see that, but once again got the timing all wrong.  So, I moved on down the Ronda de Toledo, by the Casa Encendida Cultural Center, owned by the ailing Spanish banking conglomerate, Bankia.  There were two immigrants there who had decided to beat the hell out of each other just a few minutes before, or at least I assume so. The brawl seemed to end in a draw.  Each did what they could to tend to their bleeding faces.  A dozen cops were present to secure the zone from all insecurity.  None of this appeared to be my business, but there was an undeniable bit of symbolism apparent with it all.

So anyway, I continued down the road until I got the door of the market.  It was closed.  The door.  As was the market.  They hippies within were occupied with other matters, my guess, quite possibly in preparation for the big protest that afternoon.  Luck was not on my side.

            Just about thirty yards further up the street, there was another entrance to a cultural space which on this occasion was devoted to the works of a man named José Manuel Ballester.  I had never heard of him, but gave it a shot in any event.  It was a good call, for two reasons.  One was the exhibit, which highlighted dozens of panorama photographs of everything from major cities to solar plants.  Shapes and light took center stage in these works.  The artist also exposed another collection of famous religious works in history, a huge version of the Last Supper greets you in the first hall, but with all the people removed so that you focus on the rest of the painting.  A cool and attractive attempt to tempt perspective.  The other reason was the gallery itself.  Just old halls and rooms from the old factory, touched up to a degree, but without fully losing the original feel.  The dustiness is still there.  Both building and opus melded perfectly there.

            Once I emerged from the main entrance, I crossed the street and watched a group of kids, maybe eight years old, play a 5-on-5 soccer match.  It was an official game because they were wearing uniforms.  In that neighborhood, many of the residents are foreigners, like me.  It was interesting to see a typical Saturday morning game inMadridwith no Spaniards in the line-up.  It was interesting.  Good game too.

            I was feeling a little hungry so I walked up to a traditional cervecería and had a bit of tortilla and an alcohol-free beer, which I really can’t stand but I wasn’t in the mood for a real one, and there really isn’t anything else that will go with it.  The bar was calledOSSI, giving rise to the possibility that there was more than one.  Here is nothing to these places, which is why I like them.  The stick to their bread and butter dishes and they do them well. Also gave me a nice paella tapa before sliding the tortilla on the counter.  The tortilla wasn’t so hot, but the ambience was what I was looking for.

            Lavapiés was nearby, and it had been some time since I had stopped by the Antón Martín Market.  I walked by the plaza of Lavapiés, still bummed out to see all those smalltime gambling joints preying on the poor, and wove my way up to a convergence of streets which I cannot recall every seeing before, and if I have, I never given it much thought.  It’s at the corner of    and you should stop by because there are so few of these in this city.  You have to stand at the corner of Calle Escuadra and Calle la Esperanza and look up at Calle Torrecilla del Leal.  Keep expectations low, to avoid disappointment and a desire to insult me, and enjoy the nook.  Then move on.

            Which is what I did.  I went to the corner of Torrecilla and the Calle de los Tres Peces (The Three Fish) whose name I should know the origin of but can’t recall, and stopped in a small bookstore/café for a coffee and a seat in one of those comfortable living room chairs they have.  I think it was called La Infinita, or something to that effect. Just to think of all those people wasting their time at Starbuck’s when they could be doing the locals a favor.

            I didn’t stay there long, just a quick but decent coffee, because I wanted to catch the market before the stalls starting drawing down their metallic blinds. The Antón Martín is right next to the Art Nouveau style Filmoteca, old movie house.  I was happy to say that there was plenty activity going on there, commercially speaking.  It’s still a great mix of old market and gourmet gastronomy.  The food stands were getting close to calling it a day.  The tiny bars, some specializing in Japanese cuisine, were just getting going.  I wanted to stay but there was no one to stay with this time.

            On the way out, I saw the old knife store.  It’s been there for far more years than I have.  It was closed, but I knew it was a place I would have to come back a visit.  I’ll let you know.