Halloween 2011

I went to get my pumpkin yesterday.  I had checked out the local market last Saturday but they weren’t ready yet.  The greengrocer wasn’t going to have his available until Tuesday or so.  Amateur.  That was no way of doing things.   I needed my pumpkin and I needed it right there and then.   It turned out my luck was similar everywhere that day.

      So last night I went out around 8:30 looking for something to do and decided it was time to pick mine up before it was too late.  I decided to walk over to the Corte Inglés and get one there, because for once some of the cheapest pumpkins in town can be bought there.  They are also some of the smallest.  This would also give the chance to poke my head into the newly revamped supermarket.  I have always had a weakness for this grocery store.  It is a step up from the rest of the competition, though generally for a price.  The pumpkins there, somehow, were an exception.  This comes as a particular surprise to me because the fruit is pretty exotic in these parts and you’d think a place like the Corte Inglés would want to cash in on the rising popularity of the Irish-American festivity.  For once it decided to have mercy on our pockets.

     When I arrived, I could tell the store was down to its final dozen.  I’m sure the will be restocking for the  weekend, but that was what I had to work with. They were a sorry bunch, all scarred and beat up, and I had to examine them carefully before selecting two that seemed worthy of my knife.  We are not talking about large pieces of fruit here. Some were no bigger than a cantaloupe at best.  They would have been laughed out of town back in Connecticut, but for my small Madrid apartment needs, I found them manageable and convenient.

      I dropped them in the carriage and took a look around the new environs.  They had certainly done a solid job of making the place more spacious and inviting.  The old supermarket was cramped and hostile.  This version was open and inviting and had toned down light to make shopping for food more soothing.  I need that because I can get stressed out about these things.

    It also sold a helluvah lot of alcohol.  I mean it was there by the barrel-load.  These people weren’t just supporting the sale and consumption of beer, wine and spirits, they were encouraging it.  The minute you walked in, you had the zucchini, green peppers and Golden apples on you left, and cases of Rioja and albariño on your right.  And then further beyond, aisles and aisles of libations.  But it didn’t end there, the place was peppered with stands prmoting this red and that white throughout…next to the pork, beside the olives, between the tomato sauce and the muffins.  There was so much booze around I was hard pressed to find some of main staples in my diet.  I had to go up to one employee and say, “Excuse I’m looking for a kind of food called bread. Do you have any?”

     “Oh, I think so.  I think it’s right by the rosé.”

     “Great, thanks.  I’ll check there.”

     Boy, if you are just recently on the wagon, this is not the place for you, trust me.  But if you are looking to make a jack-o-lantern for next to nothing, go for it.

Sidestep to Segovia

Talking about the condom vending machine yesterday jogged my brain and brought back memories of when I was in Segovia a couple of years ago and was browsing in a souvenir shop located right across the street from the big 16th Century gothic cathedral.  That’s the temple where they charge admission.  It was the first time I had encountered the rising popularity of the pay-to-pray churches in this country.  Perhaps it is the Church’s way of making a few bucks from those who view those buildings as museums rather than places of worship.  On the whole, I avoid them on the basis that there are some places in this world that you should not have to lighten your pocket for.  It’s just not right.

     So, instead of spending a few minutes looking at some smoke-stained paintings and trying to figure out just who each saint was, I skipped over to the other side of the street to a gift shop and perused through the shelves and scanned tables to look around and maybe pick up an item.  One thing that speaks in favor of Segovia, a major tourist town and rightfully so, is the relatively low number of souvenir shops when compared to the onslaught of trinket-traders that pounce at you in places like Toledo.  And they are relatively subdued in their display and offer.  Yes, you occasionally come across what I call the Bienvenido-Mr.-Marshallesque item showcasing the finest flamenco-ware available, and you can always count on the woven basket full of backscratchers which have the word “SEGOVIA” written on them in blobby paint.  I am the proprietor of one, I can proudly admit.  But this time what took me by the surprise was an item I simply did not expect to find on sale amid Slinkies donning the colors of the Spanish flag, wooden swords or coloring books, and that was a bottle opener whose handle was shaped like a penis.

     Now image seeing that in a gift shop in the United States under the sign “This Week’s Special”.  I wasn’t really shocked because I had come to know that in Spain people wouldn’t be ringing up and calling their local councilman to have them immediately removed from their children’s sight.  In fact they would probably have gotten a kick out of it and I could easily see some Spanish 10-year-old calling out to his father with the opener dangling from his fingers, “¡Papá, mira, un pene!” and Dad replying, “Honey, stop bothering the customers and put the penis down.  You might break something with it.”

     No, what gets my mind rolling is wondering about the whole process that went into its manufacturing, from proposal to design to production and distribution.  I mean this took some time and effort.  My guess is that it was the brainchild of the son of a local successful kitchenware businessman, a classic Spanish entrepreneur who slaved for years to send his children to the finest schools in town and spent bundles each summer on English courses abroad, all in the hopes that one day the boy will be able enough to take over the spatula empire that he has created.  This rarely happens.  More often he finds that his son is 28 years old and has no future whatsoever.  But he keeps him on anyhow and prays for a miracle.

     So the kid, who doesn’t quite fit the bill because he has never had to do anything and has been drinking only the finest Scotch since he was fifteen, enters his father’s office with such a miracle in mind and says, “Pops, the boys and I were talking yesterday at the club last night and we have come up with the greatest idea.  Something that says this company is adapting to the times.”  The “adapting to the times” part came from a friend of his who will be inheriting his father’s car dealership and watches too much Spanish TV with his girlfriend where people are constantly adapting to the times for no reason at all.  Clubbing was where they got their best ideas, many of which vanished over night and by the next morning had gone for good.

     The father leans back in his leather swivel chair and puts his hand on his chin with his forefinger covering his mouth.  He doesn’t change the posture for the entire time he listens to his son’s groundbreaking contribution to the company’s already wide range of products.  Many thoughts pop into his head, most of which are unflattering and some criminal in nature.

     He pauses when he son finishes and then asks, “Son, what the hell does grabbing a penis to open a bottle of beer have to do with being modern?  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t get it.”  Then it occurs to him that if he says no, the kid will spend the rest of the day skirt chasing in the office, so he gives him the green light in hopes that will keep the boy busy for a couple of weeks.

     Segovia, by the way, is a wonderful city with some of Spain’s best historical heritage.  Don’t miss it.

Getting to the Airport: Practical information of the nature you least expect

Getting to the airport is a near effortless task from where I live.  Even splurging and taking a cab can come to as little as 22€ (5 euro surcharge included) if you are going to the nearby Terminal 1.  And time wise, it takes about ten minutes. That’s what I need to make it to school, if I crawl.  Few major capitals in Europe can boast about that kind of luxury.

      But if you have a little extra time, a little less luggage, and a lot less cash, you can always take one of the public transport options: the metro or the bus.  The Airport Express bus is a new route which races you to Barajas for just 2 euros.  They publicity it all over the place and tell you about all the streets it uses to head over.  It goes right by my home.  I used to think that the vigorous advertising and ensuing detail about the trajectory meant it pulled in at all the regular bus stops along the way, but apparently that is not the case.  I learned this the hard way the other day by trying to flag one down as it roared by.  It must be noted that the extreme speed at which these massive vehicles, so the turndown was that much more humiliating.   In fact I could have sworn the driver accelerated just to make me look that much more like an idiot.

      A better plan is to use the subway, which also takes you out to all the terminals and has the added bonus of being accessible from any subway station.  One typical route is to head for the Colombia station and switch over there.  It’s cool because as you ascend the escalator to the other line, you are treated to a massive (if not life-size certainly close to one) model plane hanging from the ceiling.  It’s actually a big yellow skeleton of a plane but it has the shape and look of an Airbus.

      Once on the next platform, the management reminds you every which way possible that there is a supplement fare for their taking you all the way out to your plane, and they warn you that you will not be able to exit the metro without forking over a little more cash.  So insistent are they in their message that when I first saw this I frantically raced around the platform looking for one of those machines from which I could purchase my ticket and travel worry-free.  I needed a little comfort.

      Such a machine could not be found.  They were only located at the end of the line, though this was not indicated anywhere.  So I couldn’t obtain my ticket to freedom.

     What I could have bought there was a pack of condoms which were dispensed for a modest price from a small machine on the wall.   You know, the kind you sometimes find in restrooms in some bars or at bus stations and places like that.  I appreciate Madrid’s public transport authority’s concern for public health issues, though you would think they would want to invest in the future rather than support methods to reduce the population, but to be honest with you, it did strike me as unlikely the following internal dialog as I made my way to the airport: I hope I don’t miss my flight, but, hey, I could certainly could do with a few extra rubbers.

      I mean, no water, no soda, no candy, no chewing gum, but, yes, a trio of prophylactics.  I wonder about these things not because installing a vending machine for such products is unthinkable, but because I want to know what kind of marketing research was behind the decision to place it there at all.   Did they survey travelers and their needs when gliding into the tunnels?  Did they discover an unattended gap in the commuter sector?  Did they monitor metro user travel habits to and from the airport?  Or did they just take a wild guess based on the universal fact that people all over the world are constantly thinking about the same thing time and again and that, just out of pure volume and numbers, enough of the potential clients would take up the offer.  So, if the drug store is closed and you happen to be in the area of the Colombia metro station, I know of a place which can solve your problem.  In  fact, since you still have to ask for them by name at a pharmacy, and yes, I still make a lap or two around the block if it’s too crowded inside, I know of a place where you get what you need more discreetly, as long as you don’t mind 200 travelers watching what color you get.

    And don’t forget the supplement at the end of the line.

A Day in the Country 5


Once out on the road, it normally doesn’t take long to get to the mountains of Madrid as long as the traffic doesn’t get in the way, which it often can.  It is normally about 15 miles out when you get a feel for just how many people have thought along the same lines as you.  On most occasions the three lanes can support the volume.   It’s when they become two lanes that things become a bit tight.  This conversion occurs far too early into the trip.  Madrid needs to keep those lanes open for 60 miles to allow for much of the traffic to shoot off to their respective towns; but until that happens, and it should some day, you are left to a guessing game.  One alternative is to take the less-traveled route over the mountains which has so many curves on it that taking your kids on it could be interpreted as child abuse.  If vomit is your thing, then this is the choice for you.  But I usually stick to the main road.  Plus, I had to get to Guadalix de la Sierra to pick up one of my daughter’s friends.  Guadalix is about 35 miles from the center of Madrid.  As I mentioned at the beginning, if there is one thing this town is famous for (in addition to being home to Spanish TV’s version of the Big Brother reality show) it’s the fact that Berlanga’s legendary comedy film “Bienvenido Mr. Marshall” was filmed here, for the most part.

            This movie is little known outside of Spain, but within its frontiers, it’s a landmark in Spanish Cinema.  It tells of a small town in Castile that has heard that a contingency of American VIPs will be passing through the town to see firsthand the needs that it might have. The Marshall Plan was America’s policy to stimulate economically depressed nations at the time, hence the allusion in the title.  The town is very excited by the prospects of having its village receive a good injection of money to improve its wealth but is, at the same time, ashamed of its shabby state.   They feel that the Americans will be disappointed by what they find because it is not the Spain they have in mind.  So, in an effort to appease the visitors, as well as outdo the neighboring villages, they decide to turn their town into a Andalusian-style town with flamenco dancers and elegant landowners and bullfighters.  Essentially they sell out their own image to meet the foreigners’ expectations.  The night before the Americans arrive, everyone goes to bed with visions of new tractors and sewing machines dancing in their heads.  The next day, and I’ll spoil the end for you, because I doubt most of you will get a chance to see it, and if you do, it won’t matter because it’s so much fun anyway, the whole town gathers in the center with banners and music and cheering and watched while American motorcade roars in and by them without even stopping.  The only thing they leave behind is the dust they have kicked up from the wheels.

            Berlanga and his amazing screenplay writer Rafael Azcona were so sharp that it is impossible to put down in just a few words all the messages they were sending out in this brilliant story.  They weren’t attacking the Americans. If anyone, they were attacking the Spanish for betraying their own culture.  They were poking fun at the Franco regime for making Spain look like a bunch of folklore freaks. They were ragging on human nature for doing anything for money.  And yes, my compatriots (or any benefactor for that matter) for insensitivity and arrogance.  No one is left unscathed at the end of the film.  A good stinging comedy should be like that.

            Coming to Guadalix was an exciting moment for me.  The town’s link to the movie is visible in a roundabout as you enter it.  There you can find statues of the townspeople with banners cheering on the arrival of the Americans.  My favorite sign says, “HOLA”, a simple “HELLO”, which to me is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in movies.   If you go to the main square, and look up at the town hall, you can see a statue of the actor Pepe Isbert dressed as a man from Cordoba delivering his famous speech to the people of the town in the days leading up to the big moment.  Also some of the houses and buildings that appeared in the film. The rest is just a normal everyday town near the Sierra of Madrid.  Pretty in parts, a bit anarchical architecturally speaking, but friendly and welcoming.  I was following the footsteps of a work of art that captured so much of Spain that preceded my arrival, and yet one with which I could somehow identify.  The Andalusian look is still very much a major selling point for this country.  And if you don’t believe me, stick your head into any tourist shop in the center of Spain and see for yourself.  The spirit of Mr. Marshall lives on!


Let me take a break from my country day out and tell you that I am out of the country for a few days so any potential robbers are welcome to come and rob my flat.  You have until Saturday.  Just don’t take my new coffee mugs because I like them.  And you can keep the potato peeler.  It digs rather than skims.

      I have come to England and am lucky to make it through because if there is one thing about British airports is that in order for the passport control people to let you by, they tend to ask some of the most challenging questions a traveler can encounter.  It is not that they are especially complicated on the face of things; it is just the fact that no on else would make such an enquiry that jars you.  They’ll say things like.

        “So, Mr. Murdock.  Your first name?”  It says it on the card I have filled out.


        “And who gave you that name?”

         “My parents?”

         “Are they your mother and father too?

          “As far as I know.”

          “And you mother is your mom?”

          “That’s correct.  And my father is my dad.”

          “Very good.  They’ll be traveling with you, is that right?”

          “No.  They passed away decades ago.” This is not true (they are alive and well), but I just wanted to see where this would take me.

          “Parents not coming on this trip,” they mutter to themselves.

           “And unlikely on future ones too.”

          “Right.  So you don’t live there?”

         “No, I live in Spain.”

         “Aaaaah.”  They are finally getting somewhere.  There’s a pause before sticking a stamp in my passport. “You speak Spanish, I suppose?”


        “In Spain?”


         “And English?”

         “Only when I have to.”

         “I see.  Good. Why are you here?”  Which is the first question of any importance up to that point.  The others are employed to fluster the potential offender of any kind.  And they do, not because they catch on anything but because who on earth would ever ask such a thing.

      This time they let me off with just a simple question or two and a slipped into the country with the freedom to do as I wish, drive around the countryside, visit castles and drink ale in pubs, and just a general threat to society.

A Day in the Country 4

I had been completely mistaken about Pepecar.  I had ripped it to shreds based on mostly unfounded rumors and vague reputations and had tossed it aside it from nearly the beginning.  But there I was, plodding out of a garage in a spanking new Yaris (once I got it started) and  on my way to ttack the roads.  15 seconds later I finally caught the sons-of-guns on a big fat old lie – they said a full tank but the gauge indicated half;  that’s a 30 euro discrepency!  I knew it.  I just knew it.   I wasn’t going to let them get away with this.  I turned around and parked the car outside the garage.   I marched in the office and informed them of the problem.  The agent ran out and crossed the street.  Then she took a look and gave me credit for being right.  “Are you sure?”  I double-checked.

      “Absolutely.  I put this into the computer when I get back in.”  Then she signed the paper as proof.  She was just plain nice and made the start to my trip hassle-free.  OK.  Fine.  Everyone makes a mistake, but a person needs to know how to admit it.  Pepecar did a first-rate job, or at least they didn’t perform any worse than the competition.  So chalk that one up for ignorance on my part, laced with a lot of stupidity.

         We went up the highway towards Burgos, also known as the A-1, and did so in a hurry but without exceeding the limits of the law, the Yaris wasn’t capable of doing much more, and tried to get to Guadalix as fast as possible in order to pic up my daughter’s friend and in passing visit the legendary square where the great speech by actor Pepe Isbert took place in the movie Bienvenido Mr. Marshall.  I was quite excited about making the visit and trying to get my kids invlved too, but they were in the midst of putting on their own rendition of the six years of World War II in the backseat, and I have to admit it was a helluvah performance.

      Soon enough, we were pulling into town.

A Day in the Country 3

Yesterday I fearfully roamed over to the Pepecar rental place expecting the worse and when I jogged into the garage, the first thing I saw was one of those Smart cars with the pepecar.com signs plastered on the driver’s door.  I was screwed.  The girls were going to hate me for this.  I closed my eyes and went into the office to get my papers and keys.  The woman who took care of me was generally quite nice and professional.  We went through all the motions and the I listened to the usual threats of all the things that could happen to me and my bank account should anything go wrong.  The old excess insurance is my favorite.  You are covered, but you still have to pay up to 1000€ in damage if soemthing happens, which sounds to me like I’m not very covered at all.  Car Rental people don’t seem to worry about this detail.  You can always get insurance which will cover those first 1000€, which is what I usually do.  The woman at the desk asked if I wanted to tack on all-risk, and I declined because, after all, just how many times do you have to re-insure something?  Would there next be a policy which covers the all-risk collision?  There is just no purpose to it.  Nor end.

    The car rentals don’t really give a hoot because they will charge you first and then have you scrap it out with the insurance company.  That makes sense.  To them at least.  It doesn’t really follow for the rest of us, but as they point this out to you while they dangle some car keys in front of your face, they’ve basically got you where they want you.   And that’s often where you don’t.

      The time finally came to approach the car and wince.  As it turned out, aside from the Smart at the entrance, none of the vehicles donned the not-so-fabled logo.  They must have been erased, which doesn’t surprise me.  The original idea was funny, but it clearly cut out a large block of potential clients from the outset.  Plus, rental cars are favorites among bored and mindless vandals looking for someone to fuck with, and there’s no better way of attracting the local hoodlums.  I reached my car, a silver Toyota Yaris (which of course meant nothing to me at the time because I told you I know squat about car makes), and thanked God the minute I saw that the only written language on it was a small sticker over the gas tank lid stating “Use Unleaded Fuel Only”.  It was green because unleaded fuel is supposed to be eco-friendly.  Some people still feel that way.

         I also noticed that it wouldn’t start.

         “Shit!”  I groused.  “This is what you get for going with these guys.”  This was essentially untrue, because I had been assigned to Pepecar.  I never would have chosen it from the beginning.  But who was going to care about that.  The offcie had now filled up and was packed with impatient customers tipping their weight from one leg to the next as they waited nervously.  I was going to have to go in and point this flaw out in front of everyone.  But then a kind of burst of illuminmation overcame me.  Somehow, there was something that wasn’t quite right here. Maybe there was a snag and I was getting it wrong.  I spotted a worker cleaning a car and discreetly went to him instead.  He looked at the details on the keyring and said, “It’s the clutch.”

      “What about the clutch?”

      “You have to press it down when you turn the key.”


      “Of course. Half the cars use that system now.”

       “I see. Well I specialize in the other half.  This is kind of new to me.”  What a relief.  But no half as much as the thought that I didn’t announce to a roomful of human beings that they were in the presence if a knumbskull.  It always helps to avoid those moments.

A Day in the Country 2

In order to get out to the sierra you need decent transportation and though buses take you to most places, cars are the real ticket.  They allow you to go any place.  I don’t have a need for a car on a daily basis at all, so I don’t have one of my own.   And though I like to say I have many cars to my name owned by many friends who care for them for me, more and more, I resort to renting one out and enjoying the freedom.

     There are some great deals out there.  I go to this website which makes the best offers, and then, once I choose the vehicle that best adapts to my style and budget, closes the negotiations and directs me to the car rental of its choice at the location of my choice.  It’s the Atocha train station, so the range is fairly wide.  Up to this point, it has always worked satisfactorily.  But so does my toaster, which doesn’t mean I won’t ever get caught by surprise.  This week I was.

      They sent me to Pepecar, which was one of Spain’s first lowcost rent-a-cars.  Pepecar used to get its name around by renting out vehicles which were white with spots and which had big letters saying PEPECAR splashed over the hood and other inconspicuous places like that.  It was their way of compensating the low rates while having you do the advertising for them.  When I first saw them, I thought it was a fun and original idea, in part because the “Pepe”, which can be translated as “Joe”, had a silly but effective away of seeming appealing.   It was corny and crazy and catered to an unabashed generation.  It had all of my support.  As long as someone else was driving the car, of course.

      I couldn’t see myself dead in one of these, unless I was using it to kill myself and avoid the consequences.  And even then, my name would be inextricably attached to having been the driver to sail off a cliff in a Pepecar, and though there isn’t much left to my reputation, I still have that small portion to uphold.  I am a man with plenty of complexes.

       An even bigger factor was my daughters, who would have suggested I do the same if they ever saw me pull up in one of those.  But without them in the car.

        So, I raced through the website to get a feel for what kind of publicity I would projecting to the country folk and livestock of rural Madrid, but they were rather vague about the design.  They were all white.  This unnerved me.

A Day in the Country

Well my chin is improving, in case anyone was wondering.  The wound has become smaller, and the scab has tightened and curled inward at the edges and has hardened and turned more leathery on top.  The thickest part is where my chin worked the most to bring the rest of my body to a full stop. 

        It is also uglier and that makes my viewers a little more wary when they approach me as if they are afraid I have been in contact with some deadly disease and, what is worse, that I could bring them in contact with some deadly disease as well.   A few days ago they would ask, “What did you fall or something?”  Now they suggest I have a doctor take a look at it and maybe get some tests.  Then I tell them the truth and they laugh with relief and say I am too old to play soccer.  They may have a point, but that’s not exactly the issue.  I feel my skin is just too soft to be rubbed against asphalt. 

       In any event, as is customary in this city in the fall, I have decided to take the girls out to the Sierra de Guadarrama (Madrid’s mountain range) to get away from urban life for a few hours.  We are planning a picnic.  The temperatures have dropped in accordance with the season, and in accordane with my luck these days, but it should be nice enough around midday.   If not, the car is cozy too.  I think my scab will appreciate the mountain air too.

      We will also being picking up a friend of my daughter’s at a town called Guadalix de la Sierra which is known, among other things, for being the place where they filmed most of Berlanga’s classic film ¡Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! (Welcome Mr. Marshall!) a comical but stinging social criticism about a village that awaits the arrival of American economic assitance in war-torn rural Spain in the 1950s. It is one of the most emblematic films of that period with a universal message that is still alive and well today.

      I am planning on visiting the main square where the mayor made his famous speech from the town hall balcony.  It’ll only take five minutes.  I haven’t told my daughters we are going to do this yet.  From the comfort of their living room couch, they wouldn’t understand it.  Then it’s off to the hills!  Here comes Mr. Murdock and his clan!

Comer en España: más sobre el aperitivo

El aperitivo es una actividad amorfa.   Un acontecimiento atemporal e indefinida donde no se sabe qué forma tomará ni adonde acabará a parar…algo parecido a lo que pasa cuando llega un balón de futbol a mis pies.  En teoría, empieza y acaba antes de la comida.  Así se ideó, creado por una fuerza divina.  Diseñada para poner en moción todos los sentidos a través de algunas de las delicias más grandes que produce este país, se trata de rato esencial en la jornada gastronómica del español. Y como te descuidas, se puede convertir en la comida principal del día.  En los fines de semana, sobre todo los domingos, pueden adquirir dimensiones colosales.  Muchas veces llega un momento en que deseas que no acabe nunca en buen feeling, y bien sabe Dios que la gente lo ha intentado alguna vez…hacer que se perpetúe.  Eso se llama el exceso y es el compañero divertido pero travieso del aperitivo.