Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Posts Tagged ‘spain’

30 Days of Christmas

January 23, 2015

The 30 Days of Christmas 23

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There is a way to make it stop. A way to get out it. A place to go when you feel just can’t eat anymore. It’s not home because that’s where all the turrón is, lying there on some shiny ceramic platter just begging to be picked up. And you will succumb to the temptation. More than once. You just leave the city and flee the danger, the madness, and the disease. Boccaccio sent his characters away from the plague soy they tell their 100 tales in Decameron. Why couldn’t I skip town to stay out of reach of the nearest marzipan figurine?

     When I need a place to and get away from it all, I find it just about an hour away from the center of Madrid in a bucolic and astoundingly unspoiled valley to the north of the capital called el Valle de Lozoya, and a village known as Alameda. This time I took up temporary residence in another nearby town, the largest in the region, called Rascafría. The name translates liberally as frigid wind, which should give you an idea of the kind of climate one might encounter there, especially in winter, but rest assured that this is not the icy tundra, though it is somewhat higher and frostier than many would imagine.

     The valley gets its name from the Lozoya River, which trickles down from the lofty Sierra de Madrid and carves its way through the land. The contents of this waterway softly pass by fields, woods and hamlets before spilling into a large reservoir known as the Embalse de Pinilla. One of the few positive legacies ever attributed to Franco, and even this one is debated, is that fact he took measures to ensure Spain, a rather dry country in many regions, had a fairly extended and steady supply of water in a land where rainfall is anything but steady.

     When Spaniards are not drinking alcohol, which at this time of year seems only at breakfast, water is a common alternative. In fact, it’s basic drink on an everyday basis…not soda or milk, which was what I was nurtured on. It makes a difference. The first time I came to Spain, I lost about 15lbs in the first three months, and part of it had to do with my being nourished with simple glasses of water at every meal. That and the rest of the so-called Mediterranean diet, which is a standard regime that Spaniards tout as being the reason why they don’t have to pay for two seats when they buy airline tickets and stuff like that. The nutritional plan gets its strength from its balanced nature. It relies, sometimes too heavily, on olive oil, but also includes well-distributed amounts of fish, fruit, vegetables, legumes and beans, meat, bread, dairy…the whole deal. Basically everything you were told to do when you had your healthy eating class but never actually followed. You can in the States, but it almost sounds as if you are making a statement when you do. Here, it is second nature. That’s why some may be astounded to find kindergarten students jollily munching on chickpeas and carrots and fresh fish. They might even marvel at the sight. Especially since it’s not such an uncommon sight.

     Much as the Spanish would like to brag about how complete their diet is, and it can be despite the massive incursion of fast food over the past fifteen years, history shows it wasn’t always like that. In fact, the heavenly blend of comestibles didn’t arrive to the heart of the country until fairly recently. Up until the 1960s, Castilian gastronomy was anything but balanced, weighted in all types of beans and salted pork and fish and lacking in many vitamins. It sounded as if the Spanish ate less and farted more. The present-day setup of three square meals represents more of an amalgamation of different diets and eating habits from around the country. Together they forge one of the finest range of food available to an omnivore…by the way, if you are vegetarian, go find another country.

     And, of course, copious quantities of the old H2O never hurts. And if you live in the Madrid metropolitan area, all the better, because there you can enjoy some of the finest tap water the country can offer. Many foreigners, especially Americans, are wary of putting their lips to a glass for fear they will end up spending the weekend within the confines of their hotel bathroom. Heck, I know a lot who refuse to drink their own water let alone put their bowels on the line with another country’s version. I remember growing up hearing horror stories about France’s water, I don’t know why, but it probably explains why their bottle mineral stuff is so famous worldwide, and I can personally confirm, much to my displeasure, that everything they say about Mexico’s Montezuma’s Revenge is a reality. A very real reality. But the agua in the mountains of the Madrid, is a totally different story. It’s absolutely delicious, and it’s nearly a sin to order a bottled version from some other region when you have such a terrific hydro-delicacy at your fingertips. The fancy water with the ever-fancier packaging is becoming ever more popular in this day and age where even the most basic necessities need to be sealed in gourmet fashion. Asking for a free pitcher is now frowned upon. Alas…nothing seems to come for free anymore.

     Well, that’s where I headed. That’s where I went. I ran to the hills, for the hills, to burn off some calories, take in deep breaths of fresh air and…have some great, great meals. Guilt-free pleasures.

30 Days of Christmas

January 10, 2015

The 30 Days of Christmas 17

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Christmastime, though most people are unaware of this, is actually broken up into two main periods: Advent and Christmastide. The former is the four weeks that lead up to the day that represents the birth of the Christian savior and the latter constitutes the twelve days from December 25th until the Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men come and pay homage to the Messiah. Both seasons have existed in the Christian calendar for centuries but, as time has passed, different cultures have centered on one or the others.

     Most northern European countries and North America emphasize the weeks prior to December 25th, which is not to say that old tradition hasn’t taken into account the other time. Carols like the “Twelve Days of Christmas” are proof that way back then, the stretch of days at the end of December and early January were very important. It also shows that as early as 1780, when the tune first appeared in print (though the song is probably older), present giving was intimately associated with the yuletide and, in passing, suggests that back then, men were as hapless at knowing what women liked as a gift as they are today. The intonation of the melody itself makes it clear that he only got it right on the fifth day.

     All the same, for as long as living my memory can recall, it’s Advent that stands above the other in most Anglo-American circles. That’s why we have Advent calendars, hold all or most celebrations before Christmas Day, sing Christmas carols, watch It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol and A Charlie Brown Christmas no later than December 25th, though preferably on the 24th, and pretty much sigh with regret, or relief depending on your perspective, the night of the 25th and say, “Well, that’s it.”

     Everyone knows New Year’s Eve is a big event around the world, quite possibly the most global holiday on the planet, and there are those that suggest this represents the former Christmas Octave, a tradition that went from the 25th through January 1st, but I highly doubt that. It is generally an afterthought in comparison.

     Spain, as usual, was a different story. Not very long ago, this culture put far more emphasis to the Twelve Days. In fact, one often didn’t get a sense that the holidays had really started until the night of the 24th, or possibly the morning of the 22nd, when the lottery was announced. People went about their business, thought about some plans here and there, and especially lined up at the markets to buy traditional Christmas treats: turkeys, lamb, chickens called pulardas, roast beef, filet mignon, codfish, jumbo shrimp, Swedish lobsters, goose-neck barnacles, elvers, hake, and dozens of other delicious items, many of which soared in price for the holidays. They still do.

     But true to the Spanish spirit of not being outdone in the fiesta department, the country has now incorporated both and embrace these periods with the greatest of verve. Coinciding with the loathsome Black Friday (this too has been added in custom and vocabulary) the holiday season kicks off at the end of November and doesn’t let down until January 6th. Yes, that’s about 40 days all said and told. Yes, that’s about 11% of the natural year devoted to a single holiday season.  There may not be a dozen days of constant partying going on, that would be foolish to affirm.  What the Spanish do to keep spirits high and the festivities rolling is eat.

     With that in mind, suffice it to say that on the eve of Christmas Eve, far from reaching the finale of festivities, the climax of the celebrations, the summit of Mount Crumpit, where we would go for that one concluding push, that last sprint down the stretch to reach the finish line of the Christmas eating race, there was still plenty of gorging to be had.

     In fact, some would say it had hardly just begun.

30 Days of Christmas

January 9, 2015

The 30 Days of Christmas 16

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I was hungry. But for something else. I had dreamed about the winning number. Well, at least the last digit of the winning number. It was the number 7. The other four figures had escaped me, so I was still at a pretty big disadvantage. At best, if right, I would get my twenty euros back, because if the final number on your ticket is the same as the final number of the jackpot prize, then you are reimbursed. It’s of little comfort because most of my tickets did not end in seven, so I just had to wait and see.

     I was beginning to believe in my powers ever since I predicted through my dreams that one of my guinea pigs would get stuck in between the radiator and the wall, and such an event actually did happen. The little guy waited patiently for me to extract him from the predicament, which I did before returning him to his cage. So, there was hope yet.

     There is no question that Spain is a country of deeply ingrained traditions. But even so, it would surprise more than one newcomer to this culture that one of the oldest and most beloved customs is not decking the halls with boughs of holly (it’s a protected species here and you can get thrown into jail for it, just so you know), or caroling in the streets, or carving a turkey on Christmas Eve, or toasting to the of the holiday season, but rather legal gambling. That’s right, going down to the local agency and purchasing a ticket with your hard-earned money.

      But there is more to this than meets the eye. The Lotería Nacional de España is the oldest lottery in the world. Its roots go back to the 18th Century, and the Christmas drawing itself started up in 1812. Let’s put a little perspective.

     That’s four years before “Silent Night” was composed, eleven years before The Night Before Christmas was penned, 31 years before A Christmas Carol was published and the first Christmas card was made, decades before Christmas trees became really popular, and a century before Santa was habitually suited up in Coca-Cola red the way we know him today. By the way, the soft drink company did not invent the tone, but it did know how to cement the image and, in passing, make it an effective way of associating their product with such an omnipresent yuletide personality.

     So, you could argue that the Spanish Christmas Lottery is anything but a modern creation of a dubious holiday nature. It’s an ancient creation of a dubious holiday nature, but one that gets grannies and children alike involved…and from all over the world. I won’t even begin to touch on how it works, but suffice it to say that the reason why this is so popular is not the astronomical jackpot, the amount is 4,000,000€, which is paltry compared to what’s out there today, but rather how widespread the winnings go. There are thousands of prizes, 70% of the total amount paid goes back to the players, and you have about a 5% chance of winning something. Those are excellent odds all things considered. This gives you an idea of how good they really are:

    Powerball: 1:35

    Mega Millions: 1:15

    Euromillions: 1:13

    Lotería de Navidad: 1:7

    28 million people usually win something. That makes for a lot of happy individuals just hours before the celebrations get going.

   It would appear, however, that my ability to foresee the future of my rodents outperformed my talents as a visionary in nationally backed gambling. The children, yes they use underage boys and girls to pick up the balls from the oversized bingo cage, sing out the winning numbers for four hours straight. There are over 2,500 winning numbers. I wasn’t one of them.

      It wasn’t a very good day for Joe Cocker, either. He passed away leaving an unforgettable legacy and just picked up and departed. I flipped through YouTube for a few songs and then went about my day trying to get my shopping in before it got too late. I guess I was feelin’ alright.

30 Days of Christmas

January 7, 2015

The 30 Days of Christmas 14

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Many of my friends were turning forty this year and celebrating it as if they had no plans of reaching forty-one. On top of that, each and every one had to be greeted with a surprise party to the extreme that my daughter finally told me, “For the next friend, if you really want to surprise him, don’t have a surprise party.”

     Of course, she was absolutely right, but that reasoning was of little good to the rest, and this was the final one of the group, and a Saturday night event was scheduled. My friend’s wife had requested we take a brief video and send it to her so she could put them all together in a large movie. She had begun to remind us a month in advance of the party. She re reminded us several more times till the point at which she said, approximately ten days before the event itself, that she would no longer admit videos beyond this point. I decided to send mine off that morning, of the party that is, with the faint hope that my contribution would be accepted at such a late hour. After all, this was Spain, and things like this were not unknown heard of. Plus, I had been so overwhelmed with work those weeks, I was sure they would understand.

     I also made the most of the morning to try and get some Christmas shopping in.

     I stopped at the corner of Goya and Velázquez, a very artistic meeting point, if you think about it, and gave up. Too many people at the crosswalk waiting for the light to turn green. This can be done at a different time.

     The party had an additional surprise for those of us who were doing the surprise. It was a theme party. A 1970s party, I think, or an amalgamate of the 1970s in the U.S. and the 1980s in Spain. Both equally legendary periods. For Spaniards, the early 80s marked Spain’s big cultural liberation. Actually, it had begun a few years before right after the death of Franco, but things got up and running during the same years Reagan was pulling in the reins and turning back the clock on America. Madrid was in the midst of its now classic cultural explosion known as the Movida Madrileña, which initially refers to the frenetic nightlife that turned the city upside down, but went far beyond that in almost all forms of art and music. The hairdos and funky clothes might be something Spaniards in their 50s and 60s might look back at now and cringe, but once they open their eyes again, they sigh and recall it all with nostalgia.

       I had no plans to dress up, but remembering I had one of those funky white pimp hats at home, don’t ask what it was doing there or why, and, starting there, created a character who would have fit in nicely at Studio 54’s 1979 New Year’s Eve party or played a bit part in the movie Shaft. Though I was hoping for the contrary, it came as no surprise to me that most of the other guests didn’t engage the challenge of the fancy dress motif with the verve that I had. In fact, I have a feeling many didn’t even give it a second thought. And I, being the oldest at the party, came to the conclusion that one of two factors came into play: either I was the only one with a spirit of youth, or the lame crony at the fiesta who no longer had a sense of shame.

      This should have come as no surprise since the Spanish aren’t always willing to go the extra mile for a little laugh of their own dignity. They often refer to this inaction as “sentido de ridículo”, which is used quite often in a derogatory manner to describe their inability to behave foolishly in front of others, but it just as easily be interpreted as a safeguard against acting like an jackass in public. Seeing me at the party pretend I am a member of K.C. and the Sunshine Band merely reaffirmed their faith in this measure of self-imposed prohibition.

      I was comforted by the thought that maybe some of the other males there fidgeted and felt they hadn’t done enough to impress the crowd. Either that or I had suppressed the notion that their wives hugged them on the way home and said with comfort, “I’m sooo glad you aren’t a teacher. Let’s hang out in the living room and watch some Walking Dead.”

      My new guise did no prevent me from performing previously unassigned kitchen duties. I offered, they accepted, and they stuck be in front of the stove and said, “We need you to make some risotto. Now start dicing.”

      Making risotto isn’t necessarily a trying task, as long as you know how to make the dish. I didn’t but made it up as I went, and pretty much got away with it. We actually had two versions lined up. One was a traditional recipe which included all kinds of mushrooms. In Spain they are divided into two groups “champiñones” and “setas”, the latter being the more highly prized, I guess because they grow on higher quality dung, and because they can be picked out in the wild. Apparently there is only one rule that all must obey: use a real wicker or woven basket to ensure the spores of the fungi cant fall out and spread.

      Picking setas is a popular activity in the fall here, and I know dozens of people who engage in it. I don’t because I know I will be the one who picks the kind that kills you within minutes, and no one wants that burden on the CV.

      The other risotto was made with carrillera meat which is a very tender slab of meat. It’s a the flesh off the cheek, which would not make it far in today’s market expressed as such, but that happens to be the truth.

      Both were delicious. Both were a hit.

Spain

November 11, 2014

The Consulta

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Well, it’s come and gone, and I can’t quite say where it’ll go from here.  It seems like little was settled, as both sides will not budge when it comes to admitting victory or defeat.  If anything, it’ll go on…and on…and on.

     Yesterday, Sunday, November 9, the Catalonians held a straw poll, which is a kind of makeshift unofficial referendum on whether or not the majority from the region wants to become independent, as the minority from the region have so arduously desired.  It was an act of defiance since the national government and the judicial branch had previously struck down Catalonia’s request to call on the will of the people to determine its future.  The hope to become a sovereign nation has been alive for decades, and the roots go back centuries, not unlike Scotland’s dilemma, but it has come on stronger over the past decade for reasons not easily summarized in so few lines.  Now those wanting to break away feel they have the right numbers to put it to the people, but Madrid keeps saying, “Uh, I don’t see this referendum thing happening.”

     While it’s understandable that the national government should want to put off the inevitable, the problem is it only aggravates the issue and it doesn’t make Spain look very good.  The United Kingdom established a peaceful and orderly referendum with the Scots, as did Canada with Quebec, to nationalist movements which failed, by the way.  Why can’t Spain do the same.

     So the pro-independence groups organized its now famous “consulta” and beckoned Catalans from home and abroad to put in their two cents.  The answers were short and sweet: “Yes” or “No”.  They did so in the name of democracy, calling it a show of civil disobedience for a just cause.  They even alluded to Martin Luther King Jr.  The national government called it a sham.

     Finally the numbers came in, with some 2,300,000 voters showing up at the polls, with about 80% demanding independence.  The international press has embraced these numbers as indicative of Catalonia’s overwhelming support for the initiative, but the stats belie reality.  The numbers that showed up only constituted about 35% of all potential voters, and if you remove the nay-sayers, then the independentistas only managed to muster up about 28% of the vote.

    If you take into account that the straw poll was promoted heavily by the Catalonian independence movement and it was supposed to their chance to corner the Madrid government into giving up more control to them, in my humble opinion, it didn’t do a very good job.  About two-thirds of the voters clearly didn’t see the necessity to cast a vote, and would have expected a higher turnout from those citizens if they were so adament about seeing secession through.  In short, from what I can tell, the numbers are there. I think they are higher then 28%, but probably still a far cry from the needed 51%.

    If the Spanish government had any skill with this issue, they would hold a real referendum as soon as possible, while they apparently have the vote on their side.  But I don’t see that happening either.

    Oh well.  Time to start the week.

Images of Spain

April 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spain

January 9, 2014

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: HISTORY OF SPAIN’S AND THE UNITED STATES’ RELATIONS 1

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Galveston, Texas, has always been associated in my mind with catastrophic tropical storms.  It’s just the way it is.  After all, this coastal city of some 50,000 inhabitants was the victim of the worst natural disaster in terms of loss of life that the United States has ever seen.  The hurricane that plowed through on September 10, 1900, left behind between 8,000-12,000 deaths.  No cyclone has come close to inflicting such a lethal blow on a populace.  In fact, it is said that the combined number of victims of all the other tropical storms to affect America (some 300 in all) doesn’t even match it.  It was that devastating.

      One clear factor was the absence of adequate forecasting back then.  The residents were not aware of what was to befall them.  Foolhardiness played a part too.  The weather bureau director of the town, a man by the name of Isaac Clines, just nine years before announced that, what many considered to be an obviously recommendable seawall for the emerging summertime resort town, was entirely unnecessary mainly because strong storms would never make landfall there.  So no barrier was erected.  Galveston was built on a sandy island whose peak elevation is only nine feet high, yes, that’s a whole foot below a basketball hoop, and it’s located on the western banks of one of the world’s most active tropical storm breeding grounds.  So it is safe to say the town was heading for disaster.  You could also claim with equal confidence that Clines was in no way suited for the position he held.  

I hadn’t given much more thought to Galveston until recently when I learned that it was named after a Spanish military commander, Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, who led a brilliant campaign for his country and the American colonies during the Revolutionary War.  The soldier really has nothing to do with the town, having died 51 years before it was officially incorporated.  But a Spanish explorer in the 1780s decided to honor an early settlement in his name because, it should be noted, around that time, Gálvez was an outright hero in that corner of the world, considered by some to be the savior of the American cause.

Few people have ever given Spain the credit it was due for its contribution to the American Revolution, or the Guerra de Independencia, as the Spanish call it.  American history teachers and textbooks key in on Lafayette and the French role, but it can be argued, and quite convincingly too, that Spain’s appearance and support was just as vital and, in many ways, more successful than France’s, since the latter went bankrupt when the conflict was over on 1783. 

The Spanish worked masterfully by entering the war late, sweeping the British in the South when they were already nearly crippled, and emerging from the Treaty of Paris with a handful of recovered territories and renewed prestige.  It wouldn’t last long, but I guess it good while it lasted.

            While at the time a waning world power which had recently taken a licking during the Seven Years’ War (The French and Indian War in America), Spain still had the means and the experience to pose a threat to its rivals, and welcomed any opportunity to inflict damage on them.  The fact that the same family ruled in both Madrid and neighboring France only served to cement the alliance. 

            The motive was mainly geopolitical, there is no doubt about that.  If not, why else would two monarchies, one especially autocratic, support a revolution bent on ousting a king and forming a republic?  Those would have been dangerous ideas to support.  But I guess screwing over the British and grabbing some land was far more tempting (as well as shortsighted) than realizing they were putting themselves into danger down the road.

       Once war broke out in the colonies, the other European powers made a point of it to supply the insurrectionists with the material and arms necessary to combat their English foes.  Eventually the French were persuaded to join the conflict and not long afterwards the Spanish, in June 1779, declared war and got in on the act.  Gálvez, who was already actively, though covertly, aiding the American side, was then commissioned with the difficult task of breaking the British control of southern waters and borders.  Success would mean a major setback for the British and they knew it.

Gálvez headed an almost motley force of Spanish professionals, American revolutionaries, native American Indians, slaves and other individuals of unknown origins and aims.  With an army of fewer than 2,000 troops, he managed to take Baton Rouge, Natchez, Mobile and finally, with the help of much needed reinforcements, laid siege to Pensacola, the most important British stronghold in the region.  The English finally capitulated and the south was now free of their presence. 

Gálvez carried out one of the most tactically sound campaigns of the war, achieving his objections not so much by brute force, as he lacked the numbers to overwhelm the enemy, but rather by ingeniousness.  Students of military operations have nothing but praise for his performance.  On top of that, he wasn’t one of those sissy members of the Spanish nobility who were granted a high rank based on his family name rather career performance.  He earned his place because he fought bravely in a number of wars and was wounded on now fewer than three occasions: once quite seriously while fighting the Apaches, again while in battle in Algiers, and a third time at Pensacola.  He was a stud.  A real Spanish macho.

The claim that he saved the war for the Americans is an exaggeration because the British were already showing signs of fatigue from their own personal Vietnam. And Parliament had all but lost its patience with the inconclusive results.  Win a battle, lose a battle.  It didn’t matter.  The war was going no where.  Save for some unforeseen miracle, like Washington and the entire continental army being struck by a meteorite, British defeat was all but a sure thing.

But there  is no doubt that Spain played a key role in expediting the outcome.  And yet, so little is discussed about the role of the Spanish in liberating of the colonies from the English crown that even students on the subject come upon its story with a degree of surprise.  Is it possible that Spain’s self-promoting problems go back that far?

Images of Spain,Spain

January 2, 2014

Shake Your Booty

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

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

 

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

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

Images of Spain

May 18, 2013

Images of Spain: The Fried Egg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images of Spain

May 7, 2013

Images of Spain: La fregona (the mop)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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