Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Posts Tagged ‘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. 


January 9, 2014


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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.

Spain,Twenty-Five Years and Still Running

March 9, 2013

25 Years in Spain: Trains, Planes and Automobiles 7

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Buses have always been an option inSpain. Europein general excels at this form of transport and still does.  Sure they occasionally tumble off cliffs or plunge into lakes, and sure a weary driver might fall asleep at the wheel from time to time, causing dozens of victims to be tossed around in the interior like fleshy toys in a box.  But on the whole, when bodies aren’t being mangled, they really are a solid way of getting around the country, and measurably more pleasant when compared their American counterparts.  That’s the country where people say, “You came by what?  Did you just get out of jail or something like that?”

       Spaniards who have been toAmericaand, now here’s the real factor, have actually sat their buns down on one for any extended period of time, can personally vouch for this.  They know what I mean.  Every time I take a group over to the States, the minute they see the bus waiting to pick them up at the airport, the gawk, “What the hell is that?”  But they do want to get on because deep down I know they are aching to find something which is technologically inferior to what they have and they are absolutely right.

        And that’s because Europe is entirely different.  They take their bus travel seriously.  The autocares are capacious, comfortable, smooth and sleek.  And they take you to a lot of places a train or plane can’t.  There is just one thing, I can’t stand them.  I really can’t.  Oh, I know if I have to travel that way, I will get to where I want with relative ease and style, and that there exist worse modes, but they just aren’t my thing.  No matter how much has been done to ensure comfort, they just plain seem poorly designed to me, and they are only really useful if you are interested in discovering where all the muscles in your body are.  After a few hours, each strand lets you know its location and how it is feeling at the moment, which generally ranges from dreadful to deathly.

            On top of that, bus trajectories tend to highlight local tourism and ensure success by stopping in every goddamn town the region has available.  And, as luck would have it, someone always has to be picked up at one those places.  The traveler straggles out of the bar where he has purchased his ticket and hoists his body onto the vehicle, where he scans the aisle for a free seat. Then the bus, hisses, the engines grumbles and grinds, and the whole ten tons begin to roll away.

       They run through the same procedure twenty-five times on a trip, so at night, the notion of getting rest is something the non-passengers in the country will get plenty of on your behalf. The awful movie selection tends to do the rest.

       I can stand maybe two or three hours of them, but then I just want to start being nasty to people beyond that point; and I can assure you that I act indiscriminately.  Back in the 1980s, I had little say in the matter.  Buses were cheap and so was I.  But it soon became apparent to me that, being an American and thus born with wheels, I would need to get my hands on a car.

Twenty-Five Years and Still Running

February 2, 2013

25 Years in Spain: Planes, Trains and Automobiles 3

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Reliving the day is almost as disagreeable as the trip itself.  Even twenty-five years ago just plain awful from nearly the beginning and just got progressively worse.

     Getting over to the airport went smoothly enough, I guess.  Even John looked surprisingly calm.  He just laid his head against the window, breathed into the pane from time to time and drew doughnuts with sprinkles on top.  Whatever it took to take his mind off the stress, that was my strategy.  I was just happy my little pep talk had finally made him relax.   I knew I had a knack for guiding people through trying times.  Things were brightening up.

     That was, of course, until we arrived at John Fitzgerald Kennedy International Airport and saw the line that awaited us.  In reality, it had started miles back at the Whitestone Bridge and had become progressively thicker from there.

     The real problem behind this all was the kind of flight our travel abroad program had assigned us.  As I mentioned before, the company was called Spantax, and though in America the name didn’t amount to much, in Spain the word, when pronounced correctly, eerily resembles the Spanish verb “espantar”, which means “to frighten”.  As a young student of the language I was not privy to this information, which meant I pressed on with my plans oblivious to what I was getting myself into.  It was an regular charter, a kind of oxymoron in air travel jargon, and a bad joke amongst travelers.  But it did prove that the FAA had a sense of humor.

     The check-in line was actually longer than the plane itself; so long, in fact, that I was sure we couldn’t all possibly want to take the same flight.   So I immediately decided to clear up the confusion and politely asked the man in front of us.  He was short and balding in most spots of his head and wore a cardigan jacket beneath a thick overcoat; just the kind of person who would know the information I was looking for.  He looked Spanish, but I spoke to him in English because, hell, we were still in America, and it was my constitutional right to speak my mother tongue.

     “Yes, it’s the flight to Madrid,” he replied with a noticeable accent.

     “All of us?!  What are we taking, a B-52?”

     “Ha!  You’ve never flown with Spantax before, have you?”

     “No, why? Should I have?”

     “Oh, you’ll see.”  And then he turned and faced the river of humanity ahead of us.  I now think it was because he had to laugh and didn’t want me to see.

     “What did he mean by that?” enquired John, with a nudge and a yawn.

     “It means this is gonna be a long flight, I guess.  Either that or were going to die.”

     “Oh, I don’t want to hear that kind of stuff now man?  This whole scene is really starting to bum me out.”  He began stepping away.  “I’m outta here.”

      “Where are you going?  Get back here.  What do you want us to do, lose our place in line?  Charter flights can be messy things, believe you me.  People leave their civility out by the sliding doors.”

     The only saving grace was that John was probably the largest passenger on the flight.  To talk to him, you had to position your neck as if you were looking up at the ceiling.  Chances are others would avoid confrontation with him, unless they were armed.  Still, you had to watch your step.

     “I was just going for a walk man.  Take in the scenes.”

      “What scenes?  This is the International Arrivals Building.   What could possibly interest you here?”

      “Those funky departure flight panels over there.  I think I’ll go check them out.  They blink and stuff.”

      “Hey what’s wrong with you?  I’ve noticed you’ve been acting strange all morning.  You seem so calm.  I feel like I spending a semester abroad with a yogi.”

      “It’s my new attitude man.  Except for the last minute or so, I’ve been flying already.  I guess those pills must have expired.”

       “Pills?  What pills?”  I asked.  He looked at me sheepishly.  “John!  What pills are you talking about?”

      “It’s no big deal, man.  Nothing illegal.  I just popped a few of your allergy pills to help get by on.  They were the only thing I could find in your medicine cabinet.”

     Those were my favorite drugs.  The ones I used to write poetry with, which probably explains why my poems were such crap.

     “Antihistamines?  What are you nuts?  Those are for allergies.”

     “I know man.  That’s what I just said.  I’m allergic to planes man, ha, ha, ha.” he sniggered.

     “That explains everything.  You gotta be careful with those things.  They can knock you out.  You’re not supposed to do things like drive lawnmowers or shoot people with them.  They dull your senses.  How many did you take?”

     “Not too many; I didn’t want to overdose.  Just four.”

      “Four!  You’re not supposed to take more than one at a time.”  There may have been a possibility that we would be splattered to smithereens in the middle of the Atlantic, but one thing was for sure, I could rest assured that John would not be sneezing on the way.

      “Under normal circumstances.  But this isn’t normal.  I had to make sure they were going to have an effect.”

      “Well trust me, they are.  You look like you just woke up from a coma.  Forget the departure board.  Why don’t you get yourself a cup of coffee somewhere?”  This was before the days of Starbucks, at least on the East Coast.  The best we could do back then was a Choc Full o’Nuts counter.

     “But I thought we shouldn’t leave the line.”

     “That’s all right.  I’ll hold you place for you.  We’re not going anywhere for a long time.”

       “You’d hold your place for me?  My friend, you are a good man.  God will hold you in kind regard for this, mark my words.  And I don’t even believe in him.  I’ll be back with a gift of appreciation for you.”  Then he gave me the Vulcan “V” sign.

     “That’s just great.  You can forget the gift and just worry about getting yourself back in time.  Be careful out there.  There’s a lot of wierdos crawling around theInternationalArrivalsBuilding.  Trust me.  It’s one of the most dangerous places on Earth.”

     “Mark my words.”

      “Fine I will.  See yah.”

       I turned back to see if we had moved at all when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

       “Just had an idea.  You wouldn’t happen to have any Life Savers? You know the ones with five flavors.”

      “No!  So leave me alone.”

       “Chill out man.  I can deal.”

       “Well, I can’t.  At this rate, we’ll be lucky if we ever get toSpain.”

       “All right. I’ll try something else.”

      John returned thirty minutes later apologizing that he would have been back earlier had it not been for the fact he had gotten in the Aer Lingus line by mistake until he realized that they were not speaking Spanish but English with a funny accent.  He had a Dr Pepper and a bag of Lay’s Potato Chips for me.  I passed on the soda because I could never figure out what flavor they were trying to emulate, and that made me nervous, but accepted the chips as a gesture of peace.  I was also hungry, in need of a cigarette and quite possibly a beer.

      We didn’t get our boarding passes until 5:45, fifteen minutes after the plane was supposed to take off.  And there were several dozen flyers behind us.  Needless to say, the aircraft wasn’t going anywhere.  It was a charter flight, for God’s sake, albeit an “official” one, and the problem with charters is that they are often sorely undermanned on the ground.  That means delays, more delays and lots more delays.  If the plane misses its scheduled take-off time, it is usually bumped behind the major airlines until later that evening.

      There was also word of a baggage handlers’ strike, which only made things worse.  Baggage handlers are kind of like the stomachs of the airport organism.  You fail to appreciate their importance until they begin to fail you.  Then you wished you never had an ill thought about one in your life.

      On the other hand, when it is 10:00 p.m. and you are still at the gate, you basically don’t care who is to blame, you just want solutions.  Spantax’s answer up to that point was to keep us in the dark about the truth. They knew the power of withholding information, and they exercised it to expertise levels.  The hostesses at the counter would just smile at the endless enquiries and say, “Wish we could help.  But they haven’t told us anything yet.”  God, they were effective.

       John and I moseyed off to a bar and began digging into our budget in exchange for a few skunky-smelling Becks.  In hindsight, there may have been some clear issues with mixing alcohol with antihistamines, but when you are twenty years old, those thoughts don’t come into play. In fact, if anything, they encourage you to experiment.

     Eventually some garbled instructions emanated from the PA system.  Back then they still alerted of boarding times over the airwaves without fear of a liability suit.  This was encouraging, in a pathetic sense that only desperation can produce, as it soon became apparent that departure was at least in the foreseeable future.  For the airline, I hesitate to call it such as it sounds too professional, it was a way to get us on the aircraft and make us feel as if we were closer to our destination.  That way we would shut up.

     There were so many rows onboard it became immediately evident that the designers did not have 20th Century people in mind when considering space.  I mean, if we had been a travel group of Australopithecus, well perhaps our gripe would have come under certain debate, but Spantax had clearly placed quantity over quality when deciding how many seats to fit in the plane, and thus comfort was spared at all expenses.  To put down the tray in front of me, I had to bend my elbows sideways and breathe in deeply.  John, to my left, could kiss his knees without even moving his head.  There we sat for an hour and a half reliving the horrors of life before the advent of air conditioning.  Just when I thought we were going to run out of oxygen, the aircraft started to move and head bumpily for the runway.  It is my firm conviction that we were the last plane to leave the airport that day.

     The plane started roaring down the runaway in Queens, then got on the Long Island Expressway for the rest of the takeoff.  By Montauk Pointwe were off the ground.  Most passengers sought relief at the bar cart, but naturally, as a charter, there just wasn’t enough alcohol to go around, causing no uncertain uneasiness among the masses, as we were left to practice yoga without any release.  And believe me, a good book wasn’t going to do the job.  John got out of it lucky.  A half an hour into the flight he fell asleep from a combination of excessive anti-hay fever doping and limited oxygen in take.  From time to time, I’d check his pulse just for good measure.  What are friends for?

      However, that essentially left me without anyone to entertain me, and I normally need plenty of it to get me through these ordeals.  Much of the rest of the flight has been essentially suppressed from my memory.   The aircraft sounded like it was connected to a life support system.  The engines ground and moaned like ailing refrigerators.  Inside wasn’t much better.  It was loud, cramped, asphyxiating, claustrophobic and stale.  I just had to sit and stare and let the polluting inactive cabin air form a layer of crap over my skin.  And that was the extent of it.  Except for the landing, of course, when the pilot decided to touch ground when the plane was still about a quarter of a mile above the Earth.  God, I thought the wheels were about to snap.  That finally jolted my friend astir.

     “What, Jesus!” he swore and flung his arms around as best as he could.  “Did we have an accident?  What should we do?  Where’s that instructions card again?  Oh, Christ, why wasn’t I listening to the stewardess when I was supposed to.   My fifth grade teacher warned me it would get me into trouble one day!”  He kept muttered and fumbled through the pocket in the seat back.

      “Would you knock it off.  We haven’t crashed!  We’re here!”

      “Oh, really.  Well that was easy enough.  Flying’s a breeze.  Viva España!”

A few months later while John and I went to visit some college mates of ours who were studying in Avignon, France, and we read in the Herald Tribune that our beloved airline Spantax had folded.  No, really?  Who could have imagined that?

         “John, I think we’re stuck here for a while.”

         That was particularly true in my case.

Madrid,Spain,Twenty-Five Years and Still Running

January 26, 2013

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

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Yahoo! informed me calmly this morning of what brought about the demise of the pop duo Wham!  Although it never concerned me in the late 80s, and I can’t conceive why journalists felt there was a need to shed light on it now, I ended up falling for it and took a look at what became of the other side of the group, the not-George Michael, Andrew Ridgely who, at the age of fifty, looks like a tan 60-year-old surgeon more than a former international teenie-bopper singer.  That was about all I got from the piece.

      That and the fact that I was once again reminded of just how long it has been since I arrived in Spain the first time way back in January of 1988.  Twenty-five years ago.

       On that occasions, I flew with a Spanish charter company called Spantax.  It was the air carrier chosen by my university program, Saint Louis University, and in retrospect I now realize that the Dean of the school had little care about whether his study body made it for spring semester or not.

      Up till that point, I had always enjoyed air travel, but like any good citizen of my country, I was suspicious of putting life, limb and luggage in the hands and of a foreign airline.  Hell, we had invented the goddamn contraptions, God only knows what these Europeans were capable, or incapable, of doing.  Plus, a company whose name sounded to me like something you wear to an S&M engagement provided little encouragement.

      And yes, my deepest fears came true.  My first flight over to Spain would serve as more than an excuse for never wanting to board a winged vehicle again.  Not even a Pontiac Thunderbird.

      I was not alone in my travels that year.  My good friend John from college had also decided to brave six months in the wilderness of Spanish-speaking humans, but first he had to face the leap across the ocean, which was going to be a challenge enough for him.  Up to that day, the closest John had ever been to flying was when he sprang off diving boards in the summertime.  He confided in me this secret just two days before takeoff in an offhand sort of way which was so characteristic of his way of dealing things.  It wasn’t British stiff-upper-lip-ism, but more like Virginian low-key-ism.  I appreciated his demeanor and was proud to be the first to accompany him on such a monumental moment in his life.  Not being a veteran like me, he naturally had reservations about the feasibility of an 800-ton metallic canister becoming airborne.  So, to ease his nerves, I patted him twice on back, told him to relax, and then went back to stuffing boxer shorts in my suitcase.

     I guess my words of soothing must have lacked the kind of convincing one needs in those hours of anguish because the very next morning John went out and bought a carton of cigarettes and by dinner he was already running out and asking if we could go back downtown to get some more.

     “Take it easy John,” I said as we shared a shivering January cig outside my house.  “It’s no big deal.  Just think of the thousands of planes that take off every day and don’t crash into a billions pieces.”

     “I’m cool man.  I’m not worried at all,” he replied and let the silent night air reign.  We scanned the skies and observed the beauty of the universe above us.  Billions and billions of Carl Sagan’s twinkling baby stars blinked and winked away happily.  Two human beings awed beneath the hushing nighttime heavens.

      Suddenly there interrupted from the north a flashing red light.  It was just at that angle where you couldn’t tell whether or not it was moving horizontally or vertically.   Soon enough, though, we could discern it was a plane.  From the other end of the indigo dome approached another soundless projectile.  Two aircrafts coasted over the continent, softly like clipper ships coming into harbor, and headed for their destinations, wherever they were.  They were heading for their homes, for a place to rest, for a goodnight’s sleep; they were heading for…for…straight for each other!

        It was too late to scream at them to change directions, so we just gawked and sat back to watch the imminent disaster unfold before our very eyes.  I wasn’t going to be able to save any lives, but at least I could tell my friends and family I had witnessed it, and that can be very important in modern times.

        The red beads neared and neared until for a moment, they became one.   I held my breath in anticipation of a raging expansion of energy, a sunburst, a dying supernova, something loud and spectacular.  It was going to be awful, but from a distance, eerily beautiful.

      The explosion, however, would never appear.  Soon the tiny intermittent flashes parted and sailed away with the same calmness they had met before, as if nothing big had happened.  As if they hadn’t even seen each other for that matter.

       John and I stared at the exact dark spot where the catastrophe should have occurred.  We were speechless for a few seconds before he finally broke in again.  “Uh, do your folks have any valium hanging around?”

Images of Spain,Spain

December 15, 2012

No Place for Tired Teachers

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

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

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

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

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