Images of Madrid: El Tulipán

I like my images of Madrid to be to ones which people rarely imagine.

I try to see the little things that form a part of my daily life.  That’s what Warhol supposedly tried to do when starting to work on his Campbell’s Soup can sessions.  Talk about the aesthetics of everyday objects, places and people in our lives, and an artistic virtue in them.

     This is El Tulipán, a dinky little restaurant you would probably never think twice about entering, not because it is horrendous inside, but rather because it is a carbon copy of hundreds of other dinky little restaurants in this city which make up the fleet of local cafeterías.  They are an inseparable feature of the landscape here; everyone has their own spot.  I have mine nearby where I live, usually good for a quick coffee.  But you rarely bother to visit others, and pay even less attention to them as you walk around town.  Some of you may have actually passed by this and not given it any notice, like the people you see practically every day and generally ignore.

     El Tulipán is one of those.  Sort of.  In reality, it is what they cal here, a patito feo, or ugly duckling, because they food they serve inside is several steps above what you would expect.  The tiny local bar also specializes in a fabada de marisco, which is why people go there at all.  Fabada comes from fabes, which is the Asturian word for “bean”.

     I made a point of it to visit El Tulipán on one of my days off.  This was one of my chances to break away from the routine of my other life and go for lunch somewhere on a weekday, which is something I can never do.  I went with a friend who hadn’t ever been there either and we loved it.  The fabada was outstanding and the portion generous.  There was practically more seafood than beans, which is unusual.  It was served in a nice casserole dish which we could dip into again and again.

Here is what it looked like from above.

We each had seconds and thirds, a bottle of wine, two desserts and coffee for just 25 euros each.  But it was more than just the food.  It was the wall covered with pictures of well-known diners wishing the owners well, the congenial service, the simplicity.

There is a terrific book by a father-and-son team called Hidden Madrid.  I recommend it to anyone looking for a little more depth into this city.  You realize the visible delights aren’t all this city has to offer.  While the book focuses onMadrid history and curiosities, I assure you that ordinary places like El Tulipán easily form another part of this Madrid’s hidden charm.  The difference is, these places are as visible as they are unperceivable.

December 28th: A Day to Remember

Ok, I admit it.  This is not Madrid this morning.  I have absolutely no imagination.  Every year on December 28th I use the old “It’s snowing in Madrid” trick to dupe the unwary on the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  To do this in English doesn’t quite garner the amusement it should as most people from beyond Spain’s border are not aware that this is this country’s equivalent of our April Fool’s Day.  It’s also not entirely impossible for it to snow at this time of the year, even in Madrid.  This happens to be a genuine caption of the Retiro Park from a fairly thick snowfall years ago.  So it’s pretty easy to pull a fast one on the rest of the world.

    I didn’t quite expect to catch many people off guard here though.  Even my daughter who is down in Cádiz gave me the old, “Dad, please.  What do you think I am, stupid or something?”  Part of that has to do with the fact I think I say the same joke year in and year out.  But a few did take the bait.  One was my other half who is currently in a distant land which is habitually blanketed in snow at this time of year and rattled with cold and wind.  Right now she is telling half her country that we are buried in frozen precipitation.  Even my friends from a certain online magazine from this city contacted me to check on what part of Madrid I was referring to.  So maybe the old trick still has a little of its trickiness left in it.

      Leave it to the Spanish to come with one of the most unusual historical events as a motive for sticking “Kick Me” signs on each other’s back.  December 28th, I think I have mentioned this before, I am sure I have mentioned this before, commemorates the massacre of all the children under the age of two in Bethlehem.  Herod knew the possible threat was a newborn, but for good measure, just in case he was off by about 730 days, took no chances.  The victims were later known as the Santos Inocentes, and from the idea of “innocent”, as in “gullible”, came the excuse for pulling a person’s leg.  It’s quite a road from mass infanticide to harmless pranks, but at some point, the transformation was made.

     The doubly ironic point is that the event itself is the subject of enormous historical scrutiny, as many, if not most exports, cast serious doubt that it ever took place.  I certainly hope that is true.  It also wouldn’t be surprising, since, upon further consideration, one comes to the conclusion that many Spanish holidays are based on facts that seem anything but factual.  Here’s a sampling:

     Saint James’ Day (July 25th) – Patron saint of regarded as the evangelizer of Spain, chances are he never set foot in this land.

    Fiesta Nacional de España (October 12th) – By most Spaniards’ standard, the Feast of Our Lady of the Pillar.  This was the Virgin Mary who it said to have appeared before St. James during the journey through this land that he never made, making the event doubly miraculous.   She is also the patroness of Hispanic Culture and not Spain, as is commonly thought.  That is the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception; we’ll get to her in a second.

     The most baffling part of all is that the one indisputable truth related to this day, the Discovery of America by a Spain-financed Columbus, is hardly ever mentioned.  People will say things like, “Oh, yeah, that’s true, too.”

     “What do you mean that’s true too?!  You guys single-handedly ushered in the Modern Age and you celebrate the sketchy apparition of Mary before a man who was never here?”  Go figure.

     The Immaculate Conception (December 8th) – The Patron Virgin Mary of Spain and known as such for a personal development that even the most devout Catholic struggles to come to terms with.

     Father’s Day (March 19th) – In honor of St. Joseph, the father of the son he never sired, if we are to have faith in the December 8th thing.  Maybe the non-visit by St. James had sometthing to do with this.  In any event, that means we are admiring the man who taught the Son of God how to saw wood and wield a mallet before he moved on to other matters.

     So I guess that the Day of the Innocents should not really come as a surprise.  The surprise is for those who forget what day it is.  One thing is for sure.  Expect snow for next December 28th.  Trust me!


It really happened.  The New York Times came up with that devastating article about the Spanish rummaging through the garbage to find food, and the entire world fell for it.  This was back on September 24th.  It left many of us who live here dumbfounded.  We remarked on the matter and then dropped the subject feeling that somehow it wasn’t worth getting all huffy about one of the world’s leading papers disseminating some of the most disproportionate facts about the dreadful conditions here in this country.  They do what they can; so do we.

       If you ignore it, it will go away.  They do what they can; so do we.

        That is, until today, months later, when I started up a talk with a student’s father who does business in the States.  We were at the chilly windswept soccer fields of the Ernesto Cotorruedo near the Plaza de La Elíptica.  Cotorruedo clearly had ties with the sport, and especially Atlético de Madrid, but it isn’t easy to find online who he was and what he did.  In fact, the most helpful hint I got was from another man posing the same question on a website.

       In any event, this person I was talking to had an interesting job too.  He sets up tours for choruses, orchestras and bands from the States to come here and play.  Once he gets the event arranged, he devotes the rest of his time to ensuring people go.  I was trying to watch my daughter play a soccer game, they were getting slaughtered, but never mind, and at the same time follow the conversation.  I find these tasks challenging, but I did my best to handle both.  Well, it turns out that as a result of all the bad publicitySpainhas received over the past six months, and especially, since the New York Times article, his 2013 agenda utterly collapsed.  His three major events were canceled, as the performers backed out because they fear major social unrest might threaten their wellbeing.  Social unrest?

        “Yes, I see that people are picking food out of the garbage, there.”

        “You’re right.  But they’ve been doing that for years.  No, here the only social unrest you find around here is when the bars close and the people have to go home. Or when the waiter tells you they’ve run out of grilled shrimp.”

       Spain has always been a country which starves for favorable media coverage abroad.  You could say that is true of many countries, but I entirely agree with that.  I know the U.S. couldn’t care less about what foreign reporters have to say about events there, and I’ll venture to say that some of the other big guns feel that way too.  Here, though, reporting on what has been reported elsewhere, is in itself news.  Whether it be a display of headlines from around Europe in response to the Spanish national soccer teams success, or a flashed image of CNN mentioning an arrest of terrorists in Madrid, you will come across countless examples, and proof for that matter, of the Spanish media informing the public of what the media abroad feels and believes.

        I have always found this behavior to be amusing and yet frustrating, because it suggests the mindset of a nation of insecure children begging for the approval of an adult.  Then the consequences of photos like the one published in the Times, and it really was the picture more than the articled that miffed so many, make me think again.  If a short, seemingly unassuming article about the dire situation of Spanish, real to an extent but grossly distorted on a national level, can lead to whole bands of musicians from coming over, then quite possibly this paranoia might be somewhat justified.

        Just why would Americans fall for this kind of journalism?  Is it because they don’t really know much about this country? Is it because the little information they get they consider to be expertise?  As Bob Dylan put it, “It’s hard to say; it’s hard to tell.  I always thought that he was well.”  It’s hard to know what the right answers are if you are not sure if you are asking the right questions.

No Place for Tired Teachers

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.

No City for Old Men

Madrid’s no place for getting old…I think.  For all those years you were supposed to act as if you’d never reached thirty and before you know it you’re forty-five and making your first moanings and groanings, which is not the same as moans and groans, mind you, about the things you only heard about as a child.

     Then one of my good friends from back home, he lives inValencianow, stayed at my house just the other day and we discussed several reasons why we were now clearly heading down the road to our final days. It was a Sunday evening and these topics tend to arise then.

     We didn’t come to any conclusion about whether being a resident of Valencia had anything to do with it or not, as would have been his case, or whether knowing someone who spends most of their time in Valencia would have had any bearing on that, as would have been my case, but it seemed to us inconceivable that a city like Madrid, which requires herds of youth and Peter Pan mentality to survive, would do us in.  But maybe it has.

        Years ago we would have met at the train station so as not to lose a moment of partying, lugged his luggage around and spent the next hours tearing apart downtown Madrid.

      Now we had a different plan in mind.  First, we went for a walk around the rose garden in theRetiroParkand visited an outdoor exhibit about recuperating, or trying to do so at least,Europe’s damaged wildlife.  It was comprised of about 30 panels with each side featuring some plant or animal that was either on the verge of disappearing as a result of human carelessness, or making a comeback as a result of human thoughtfulness.  We made it through about twenty-five, which was about twenty-three more than I really needed to see, and even commented on certain details like, “Aren’t those bear cubs cute?” Things we didn’t utter in our days of revelry and tequila back inCuernavaca,Mexico.

        The exhibit did enlighten me on things that I doubt will have a bearing on the rest of my half-life but nonetheless served as conversation for the two of us.  What could one of them be?  You’re right, I am talking about the olm, the incredible olm.  What else could it have been.  It does not come up on my spellchecker, but I guess I would have been more surprised if it had.

        This slim, blind, pigment-less, salamander-like creature, is also known as a proteus.  This other moniker has also escaped the range of my spellchecker, so there is reason to believe the animal doesn’t even exist.  My Other Half, when she heard me describe the little guy, thought I was saying “homme” in French, which kind of through me off because I don’t speak French and never have to her, but all the same, the idea was tantalizing.  Well, come to think of it.  Yes, that could be a decent physical definition of a man.

     The olm inhabits the tenebrous caves of southeastEurope, especially around the Adriatic area where it is particularly revered and studied by locals and eminent scientists alike.  This struck me as a challenge.  The olm is apparently a symbol of Slovenian pride, which is always a good thing to know the next time I run into someone fromLjubljanaand want to make a good impression on them.  I just hope they take “I really like your proteus” the right way.

     One thing that struck me about the olm, one characteristic I never knew about when I didn’t even know there was such a thing, was that it could go as long as six years without eating.  That was certainly unlike male behavior of any species, but then again, if one had to lead a life of extreme frugality, the olm seemed like the prime candidate.  What I found highly startling was how on earth they knew that?  Did that mean someone devoted nearly a tenth of their life to determining the time frame between meals?  Was this carried out at the expense of public European Union funding?  Was my Christmas pay being cut out in part as a result of excessive financing going towards an amphibian’s eating habits?  And, if so, how was this achieved?  Did they take a specimen a study it for that long?  Doesn’t that seem a bit over the board?  After about six months of consumptionless existence, wouldn’t you just throw the thing back in the cave lagoon and say, who cares?  Or, and here’s my theory, did they deprive the tiny eel of all nourishment until it died and said “It went for six years without eating until it stop breathing”?

     Once again, a little “Oops, I dropped it” after a year or so would have been in the calling.  But that’s just what makes public funding so enticing.  Why cut a total waste of time short when you can get paid to do it?

     These and other things we discussed as old men on the trail by the shivering rose bushes until my friend finally stopped and said, “I think I need to get walking a little.  My knees are creaking.”