Spanish Sayings: Cuando en marzo mayea, en mayo marzea

There is a saying in Spanish about springtime weather which goes “when in March it Mays, in May it Marches.”  Maybe I am just one of those souls who are subject to the power suggestion, but I am inclined to believe that, over the years, the meteorological theorem for the most parts holds true. And presumably the opposite is true under normal circumstances.

      Well, I can promise you that we can expect some great weather in May because it has been about as marchy a March as you can get.  Rain, rain and more rain, with a few gusty days to boot.  Part of this has to do with the fact that it is Semana Santa and it always rains at Semana Santa.  The clouds wait for the first pasos to emerge from the church threshold and, boom, your average healthy downpour.

       This year the precipitation has been particularly abundant.  In a sense this is great because Spain is a land which is almost never quite satisfied in terms of rainfall.  And once the dry summers drift in, there is no hope until fall again.  That’s why winter rain and snowfall are vital, and this year has been particularly positive in this sense.  The Sierra de Madrid has been smothered with a thick layer of snow.  Some may be surprised to read that there are mountains so close to the capital, aren’t we supposed to be in the open plains?  Despite Henry Higgins’ little rhymes to get a person to speak the way no sane human would want to, Spain, while home to large stretches of open plains, also happens to be the second most mountainous country in Europe, after Switzerland.  I am dead serious.  The Sistema Central, or Central Mountain Range, a chain that forms a bumpy southwest-to-northeast scar across the heart of the land, and dividesSpaininto basically two major climates.  They aren’t the Alps but they’re no slouches either.  Many peaks soar above the 7000ft mark, higher than anything you would find east of the Mississippi and the tallest in Madrid, Peñalara, stands at just a hair below 8,000ft, making it in my opinion, officially rugged in nature and not to be taken lightly by inexperienced climbers, especially during the winter.  In fact, two people had to be rescued just the other day when they got disoriented and had to spend the night near the summit in a makeshift igloo. And if I recall correctly, several unwary and unfortunate hikers have lost their lives up there.

Here is some physical proof.

This is a shot of the pine forest near the top of the Navafría pass.  It’s still about a 1,000ft below the highest point up there called El Nevero.  I topped it last summer in August, and I can promise you that even then it was somewhat chilly during the day.  There was a chance I was going to head up there in March.  Snow-whitened escarpments are a habitual part of the landscape at this time of year, and it isn’t unusual for patches of the frozen precipitation to be seen well into June.

So, as I was saying, the precipitation has been outrageously plentiful and the reservoirs are full to the hilt.  Capacity, which, you might be interested to know, is about 87%. It sounds a little odd, I agree, kind of like perfect unemployment rate being somewhere in the neighborhood of 4%, but it is necessary to avoid a sudden rush of water and having it all spill over in an uncontrolled manner.  That way, the region has some leeway.  Still, it isn’t often we can enjoy this much hydro-comfort and there are some who criticize the authorities for not having set aside more room to increase the supply, because, as anyone who has lived here long knows, dry spells can go one for a long time in this country.  For those of you who are boring like me and get a kick out of following these things, you can go to the Canal Isabel II website and get a daily update and the levels, reservoir by reservoir.

            So, if Spanish sayings are anything to go by, we can expect a great May to enjoy the best springtime in this city can offer the visitor and resident alike.

Touring Madrid 1, Part 2

If there is something to say about these massive gatherings, it’s that they are a great opportunity to walk through the main avenues of Madrid unhindered by traffic.  You can shout here and there in angry protest and then enjoy the sights in between.  Ask an anarchist to take a picture of you and your loved one in front of the Palacio de Comunicaciones.  Dance to the rabid beats of the bongos.  As your nearest riot police for directions to the Plaza Mayor.

     I returned to the center just in time for the 23-F demonstration to kick off.  This day was chosen in part because it was Saturday; and if you don’t know, Saturday afternoons are almost always the times for the biggest protests because that’s the only real chance for most people to take their grievances to the streets.  Sometimes they pick Sunday mornings, but it’s rarer, as people most often want to get some rest or go for an aperitivo.  And on only two occasions that I can think of, they were held during the week. One was for the assassination of Miguel Ángel Blanco, on a Monday in July, and the other was a Friday, March 12, the day after theMadrid train bombings.

            But it is generally believed that if you want a lot of people to attend, Saturday afternoon is your moment.  Anyone in this city knows that.  That’s what expectations were high.  Going to a protest may not be mainstream tourism, but it just might be an alternative way to discover what is going on in this country.  If you have a hotel room at the Palace with a view of the Plaza de Neptuno, you may not have a choice, but otherwise you might spend a weekend in the capital in the bars and forget there is a huge crisis afflicting the country.

            That’s where you have the political left in this country going all out to blame the severe recession on the present government which is currently being ripped for a scandal caused by the former Treasurer.  Embezzlement, laundering, payoffs, and all the good stuff were on the agenda.  And as the country’s economy still wallows in a directionless motion, the thought the leaders were hording all the cash, did not sit well.

       I’m trying to stay out of politics, but I should add thatSpain’s woes cannot be attributed to any one party, and the current allegations are just that, suspicions yet to be confirmed, but suffice it to say it is just the latest in a long line of frustrations which have wearied this country.  They have wearied those who follow the weary.

            In any event, there was this big event calling all of the citizens to become a part of the “rising tide” against the injustices of the current situation.  It was one of those Bastille moments; the WinterPalaceconfrontations, cavalry aside.  On top of that, February 23rd was astutely chosen because it is the anniversary of 1981 Spanish Coup D’état attempt.  Then, and I can get to that one day, members of the Spanish right barged into the parliament and tried to stop democracy in its tracks.  It was a major flop, thank God.  Anyway, everything was very symbolic.  Democracy prevailed, and so the opposition forces 32 years later felt it was the right time to rally the citizens again.

       Well, it kind of worked.  There were thousands of people there.  Ten of thousands.  My final estimate ran as close as 100,000, but that may be generous.  It can be so hard to tell.  That is a sizeable number, but even from close up, even in the very center near the Plaza de Neptuno, one had the feeling we weren’t jammed pack.  Plus, these days, 100,000 is not the number you want to really send a message.   Every two weeks 100,000 fans pay plenty of money to watchBarcelonaplay football.  Failing to match the number for free in the name of social outcry does make the turnout seem a little disappointing.  I can see couple of reasons why, quite possibly the biggest being that it was a general upheaval against the mismanagement of politicians in general, but a unilateral swipe at the ruling party, which is legitimate if that is what you wish.  But don’t expect the other side to join in.

            More concerning was the low number of young people there.  That doesn’t mean they were totally absent.  But I expected to see more.  I mean, according to the statistics, about 50% are unemployed.  They are so often mentioned as a mainstay of disgruntledness. Shouldn’t they have been out in legion making their voices heard?  In theory, yes.

       All in all, 100,000 is almost a paltry number given the current situation.  100,000 is the number of fans who flock toBarcelona’s Nou Camp soccer stadium every Sunday.  And they have to pay a pretty penny to get in.  That makes attracting 100,000 for a free event in the name of social outcry seems less impressive, given the current state of things; given what I thought was the current state.  But maybe I was misgiven.

Touring Madrid 1 Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

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?”

Traveling Out Loud

For once a travel agency has made me stop in my tracks.  For the most part I avoid staring at their ads because, A) I can never go on these trips and that gets me depressed and B) I don’t have the money to go on these trips, which deepens the depression.  And since I like to get home feeling about as good about life as I possibly can, and not drop kick one of my guinea pigs out of sheer frustration, I pretend they don’t exist at all.

            But this time I took a second look, and not because of the terrific prices being promoted, 1,000€ to spend three jet-lagged days in New York, but rather for another related but odd detail.  The duration.  It was really a 3-day trip  to the Big Apple, but this is how the agency put it: 3 nights and 5 days.

            Now we all know that these special offers love to bend the truth a little becasue they always tack on the extra day even though your flight may be departing at six in the morning.  But this time, the company seemed to be challenging some of the greatest laws of physics.

     It didn’t take long for me to figure it out, but, still, I did have to mull over this wonder of time-space travel for a few minutes.   This is what they were getting at.

     Day 1 – Typical Spaniards arrives at Barajas, gets on flight and arrives at his hotel some time in the evening just in time for a dinner and a collapse from exhaustion.

     Day 2 –New York, New York, New York

     Day 3 –New York, New York, New York

     Day 4 –New York in the morning…JFK airport and departure forMadrid.

     Day 5 – Plane lands in Barajas.  The typical Spaniard says NYC is the greatest thing since the invention of tinto de verano.

      So, Day 5’s itinerary involves landing at an airport at 7:00 a.m. 3,000 miles from Central Park and probably going to work like an utter zombie.  But at least it’s included in the price.  So, the purported “five days” really turns out to be two full days, one evening, and a little over a morning, dominated by the the stress of being booted from the hotel and making sure you get to the airport on time.  Sounds like fun.

            Was this a clever piece of marketing to get people to do what I was doing?  A cheeky attempt to make the holiday seem lengthier?  Just plain stupidity?   I was originally inclined to believe the second option, then considered the first only to end up at the third.  But only for a while.  Then I inched back to the second choice again but am still eyeing the first.

            But that is what publicity and deceit can sometimes do so effectively.  They make you forever wonder what the hell is going on and cause you to doubt even your strongest instincts.  And suddenly you don’t know what you believe in anymore.  And the notion that something like that ridiculous ad could potentially be proof that there are a lot of people out there who a much smarter than me, disturbed me.

Empezando el Año con un Viaje

Intento ser lo más sensible posible en los primeros momentos del año para sacar alguna indicación sobre cómo me van a ir los próximos 365 días.  Es un razonamiento bastante irracional, he de ser sincero, y algo que evoca todo tipo de críticas desde el campo científico, pero como no pienso publicar esto en una revista profesional, que les den.

      En fin, las primeras horas me saludaron con alegría, abrazos, besos, música, baile y, por supuesto, las doce uvas de buena suerte al principio.  Embutir la boca con doce trozos de fruta como manera de arrancar la siguiente vuelta de nuestro planeta alrededor del sol, desde luego se aleja de la forma tradicional de celebrar este día en el resto del mundo, pero precisamente por eso resulta ser una de mis costumbres preferidas de España.

      Eso no quiere decir que no me he encontrado con situaciones de vida o muerte por culpa de intentar engullir la docena con demasiada agresividad.  Y tengo que reconocer que por muy divertido que pueda resultar, no es comparable con colocarte al lado de la chica más guapa de la fiesta para poder plantarle su primer beso del año, como es la estrategia en mi país, pero no cabe duda de que la boca no pasa el momento inactiva.

      Este año acabó un poco más relajado que lo normal ya que la abuela de la casa donde estaba cenando se dispuso a pelar todas las uvas de todos los participantes para reducir el riesgo de atragantarse, cosa normal, porque a nadie le hace ilusión empezar el curso solar en el tanatorio.  Después de todo, solo dispones de unos 36 segundos para completar la tarea.

      No obstante, lo de pelar las uvas siempre me ha parecido algo asícomohacer trampa y por consiguiente podría causar un efecto negativo en mi fortuna y futuro.

      Yo nunca pelo.  Y así se lo dije.  Dije que no era un “pelador”.

      Pero se empeñó y tampoco me apetecía acabar el año echando una bronca a una mujer de casi 80 años, así que cedí.

      Es una labor ardua y merece la pena evitarla a todo coste, pero supongo que está bien si alguien se ofrece a hacerlo por ti.  En el fondo sabía que era todo un detalle por su parte y se lo agradecía.

      Llegó la medianoche y con ella, las inminentes campanadas.  Primer llegaron los cuartos, ni caso.  Luego el plato fuerte.  Pasamos la prueba más o menos sin incidentes, aunque reconozco que la fruta despellejada estaba muy pringosa y tendía a quedarse pegada al plástico, provocando varios segundos de pánico con la idea de que me iba a quedar colgado y no seguir el ritmo de pelotón, pero logré alcanzar a los demás.

      Luego la música y el baile familiar durante un par de horas.  Es algo que me encanta de España.  Ves a gente de 3 a 83 años en la misma sala, riéndose, cantando y moviéndose a la música más variada que te puedes imaginar…y todos disfrutando.  Es ese algo de inocencia que nos falta a los americanos.  Pasándolo en grande, porque sí.

      Sobre las tres de la mañana decidí que había tenido suficiente y dije a todo el mundo que me iba.  Lógicamente la respuesta fue, “¿Por qué tan pronto?” Cosa que entendía porque realmente era muy temprano en este país, al contrario de los demás lugares donde la gente ya estaría sobada y durmiendo la mona.  No es nada fácil despedirse de los españoles porque les gusta insistir en que te quedes.  En el pasado no sabía qué hacer y muchas veces cedía, pero he aprendido que lo que tienes que hacer es ser firme durante un periodo crítico de 3-4 minutos y si aguantas, si lo superas, eres un hombre libre.

      Hablando de libre, mi mayor preocupación una vez en la calle era saber si iba a encontrar un taxi que no estaba ocupado ya que Nochevieja tiene fama de ser una de las más complicadas en este sentido.

      Mientras me acercaba a la esquina, noté que había numerosos taxis pasando volando.  También he observado que la mayoría llevaban las luces verdes encendidas, indicando como bien se sabe que estaban disponibles.  Esto me extrañó.  Lo mismo había sido porque había pasado mucho tiempo desde la última vez que salía en esta fecha y no recordaba bien la situación; o, a lo mejor, la flota de taxis había crecido.  También se me ocurrió la posibilidad de que estaba en la acera del sentido contrario, es decir, de alguna manera, iba hacia el centro y no hacia fuera.  La mayoría de los taxis libres vienen desde fuera hacia el centro, ya que han dejado a sus clientes en su destino y ahora buscan a nuevas personas.

      En resumen, estaba contento de saber que no tendría que esperar casi nada.   Me subí, le dije con voz cansada al conductor a donde iba y envié un par de whatsapp a unos amigos deseándoles lo mejor para el nuevo año.  El mío, desde luego, había comenzado con buen pie.

       Cuando estábamos llegando, eché vistazo al taxímetro y vi la cantidad de 6,30€.  Al ser las fiestas y un tiempo para ser alegre y generoso, planifiqué redondear el coste final hacia arriba hasta 7,00€ que incluía una propina de 0,70€.  Después de todo, el pobre hombre tuvo que trabajar una noche con esta lejos de su familia y amigos.

       Soy consciente de que la propina puede sorprender a algún lector que no esté familiarizado con las costumbres de aquí.  Aquí la gente no se siente obligada a dar una propina, pero cuando se hace, suele ser una cantidad simbólica.

        En fin, el taxista se paró, y mientras iba sacando mi cartera, vi cómo él empezaba a pulsar todo tipo de botones en el taxímetro.  Aparece la palabra “suplemento” y a continuación la cantidad 6,70€.  Me dice con tono muy natural, “¡Qué bien!  Sale perfecto.  Serán 13,00€.”

       “¿Qué dice?  ¿Está seguro?  No me parece perfecto a mí.”

       “Más que seguro.  Es el suplemento de Nochevieja.”  Ya entendía porqué nadie cogía un taxi.  Solo el gilipollas de mí.

        Bueno, damas y caballeros, solo os puedo decir que era ya tarde y aunque estaba atónito ante el coste adicional, que, como pueden apreciar, era más alto de la tarifa real, no me encontraba con fuerzas de pelearme con nadie, sobre todo porque no estaba seguro.  El conductor parecía muy normal, desde luego.  Me había oído hablar. Lo mismo había entendido mi acento y decidió añadir un regalo especial para el guiri, pero tenía la sensación de que no.  ¿Había comenzado el año con un palo de un 106%?  Si era así, ya entendía porque había tantos taxis libres.  Este hombre ya se había llevado su propina, y tanto.

Images of Madrid: The Three Kings’ Day Parade

This is no mistake, though could easily have been one, knowing my page.  The image on your left is a non-image, it’s “a there” that is not there for your viewing pleasure.  I was at a friend’s office with my two daughters to watch the Three Kings’ Day Parade (The Feast of the Epiphany no longer says much to a lot of people other than it might refer to a white fresh water bird eating a large meal), because Madrid’s is the most famous of them all.  Parents tell their children “These are the real thing! The real kings.  They come to Madrid.”, which is surely what moms and dads around the land tell their children in all the towns and villages throughout the town.

            This parade that you cannot see used to kick off right across the street from where I live, in the Retiro Park, but they moved it over to the Paseo de la Castellana, oh I’d say some seven years ago, to turn it into a bigger and more spectacular event.  That was back when Spain had money and could afford these things.  Well, it couldn’t afford them back then either, but the difference was everyone liked to pretend it could.

            My friend has his law firm in a building right smack on the Castellana just above the Plaza de Colón (That’s the literal equivalent of “Columbus Square”, not a hotel for people with intestinal disorders), and from the height of the fourth floor, we are afforded a terrific vista.  It used to be a cozy gathering of just a few, but the numbers have risen, as well as word has spread, and now we can call it snug, but in a suffocating sense, if you know what I mean.

            In any event, it was fun to get together and toast with some cava and dive our faces into yet more Three Kings’ cake.  This has always been the torte par excellence on these dates, but more recently, the numbers have increased, as has the quality, I am happy to say.  The cake has never been a big hit with me, but before it was like sinking your teeth into a stack of envelopes.  Now, for the most part, the good bakers of this city have come up a recipe moist enough to make indulging generally something you won’t choke on and occasionally even a pleasure.

            The majority of us would migrate from the table over to the balcony to poke our heads out, then back to table again, chatting with friends and joking with children as they got all revved up for the Three Wise Men to make their way down the street in flashy floats.

            This parade is always slow to get up and running and the children in the bleachers, in their despair after such a long wait, will cheer for just about anything.  A lone cop on a motorcycle puttering down the road drew a rousing round of applause.

            Finally, the first sign of life appeared and the entertainment-starved crowd let out a roar.  Then you had the usual fare of bands, a few gaudily-colored floats featuring famous Christmas stories and Disney characters, the traditional banner tossers, a ballerina twirling and somersaulting while suspended beneath an enormous balloon, and that sort of thing.  Then came the military guard, the royal mounted guard, ducks, sheep, camels, and more exotic fauna like elephants.  But it was all stop and go.  Stuttering and puttering, the way these things happen to work when they try to deal with the logistics of a well-timed parade.

            Adults find this annoying, but children find it unbearable.  At the office the kids would stand up and run for more cake, get a bunch of sugar in them, and start really buzzing around like overheated flies.  Then they would run back to the balcony and take a peek, and dart away again.  There was no sign of the kings and the show was getting somewhat dull with all the unexpected stalling, except for the moment when one of the elephants paused to take a mid-walk pee.  The animal had been lumbering down the street when all of the sudden it stiffened up and readied itself.  If dragging a dog off the path in order for it to do its duty was tough enough, here there was little choice but to sit and wait.  It gushed out, I tell you, and sent a tsunami of urine right for the other side of the street where the crowd panicked to avoid the impending flow.  The rest of us who were out of harm’s way got a good laugh out of it.

            Speaking of basic needs, it was just about that moment when one of my daughters announced that she needed to go, and so I showed her through to the back of the labyrinthlike office where there was a restroom and then returned to the window.  Just then I saw the first of the three kings coasting by freely the way Barbie drives her convertible along the California coast.  At that speed it was hard to get glimpse of which one it was, but the white beard gave it away.  It was King Melchor, Melchior in English, my daughter’s favorite.  So, I raced back to the bathroom, told her to make it snappy, and then we tore back to catch the rest of the show.

            By the time we got there, the time elapsed had barely eclipsed 30 seconds, all we could see was the back of the final float with Balthazar hurriedly waving to children below.  Caspar must have been sandwiched in between there, but I can only assume this because I had no visual confirmation.

            That was it.  Done.  There was nothing left.  Whole families were descending from the bleachers and heading home.  The sanitation department was scrubbing the inundation caused by Dumbo.  The Three Wise Men had zipped by.  I was dumbstruck.  For an hour and a half, the cast of the opening show dawdled around, sometimes taking breaks of up to ten minutes, only for the main event to sail by as if they were late for a wedding.  Not that it was going to keep me awake at night, but I did feel for the children.

            “My guess,” said a friend at my side as we saw Balthazar’s float disappear behind the horizon like a distant boat at night, “Is that they are low on candy due to the crisis and can’t afford to slow down too much.”

            I nodded with taking my eyes off the street being abandoned by thousands of somewhat stunned fans.  Sadly enough, it made sense to me.

            I have spared you the pain of viewing the tragedy, mainly because I missed it myself.

Why My Taxi Driver Didn’t Have to Go to Jail

You see the man had been honest with me, in the sense that dishonesty can be honesty if backed by a law.  It so turned out that the taxi drivers had the right and duty to tack on 6.70€ to the fare just because it was December 31st and not any other day.  Apparently they do the same on Christmas Eve.  It’s a whopping supplement, trust me.  Even going to the airport is cheaper.  Just about anything is, come to think of it.  Here is a list of what this service costs:

  • Entry rate depends on the time of  day and the day itself.  Most of the  time it’s 2.05€, but at night it goes up to 2.20€.  Nocturnal rates for the weekends and      holidays rise to 3.10€.  That’s the post-bar, “Yeah, I’ll take you home, but  it’s going to cost you.”
  • Coming from or going to the airport means an additional 5.50€.
  • If it’s the train or bus station, be prepared to fork over 2.95€.
  • Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, the aforementioned 6.70€.
  • And that doesn’t even count the actual fare of taking you where you have to be.  The specifics of that cost are not mentioned, but they are the usual time/speed/distance factors.

So, in short, if you are thinking of coming from Barajas on New Year’s Eve and it’s past 10:00p.m., you might as well stay at home and save some money.

            Before I went ahead with publishing this, I decided I would check with taxi prices in other parts of the world to see if this kind of highway robbery was particular to Madrid or a worldwide phenomenon.  New York, for example, was once renowned for its cabbies who chauffeured unwary Japanese tourists, they always seemed to be from Japan, from JFK to Manhattan for $300, and that was back in the 80s.  Now it has a fixed rate of $52.00, not including tip.  Anyone who has been in the daily traffic jam on the ailing Van Wyck Expressway and watched the meter tick away mercilessly, will agree the price is a more than reasonable one.  Other than that, though, the average opening fare costs about $2.50, which is pretty economical all things considered.  There is no mention of a Christmas or New Year’s surcharge, either.

     I went back to Europe and noticed that London cabs did include these dates as reasons for hiking the price.  In this case, it’s 4 pounds, which comes to about 5 euros.  Of course, considering that in the United Kingdom, the average monthly salary is around $3,065, compared to $2,325 in Spain, 24% lower, the supplement here in Madrid is all that more painful.

      And what do the French do?  Well, in addition to making good wine, good food, good love, and buying Russian passports to evade taxes, they charge a little bit more for sitting your rear down in the taxi, 2.40€.  They also have different distance rates for different times of the week, and an extra price for a 4th passenger, 3.00€, or its equivalent, two ten-year-old children.  That last feature was an eyebrow raiser, but I guess every country is entitled to its own customs.  On the other hand, they have no supplement for the airports or train station, unlike Madrid, nor does there seem to be an additional cost for the aforementioned holidays.

      Berlin is by far the most expensive place to start off.  3.20€ is the starting rate.  From there, they charge by the kilometer and have supplements for baggage that doesn’t fit in the trunk and a nominal 0.50€ fee to go to the airport.  Other than that, everything seems to go according to the distance you travel.

      So what does this all tell us about me trip home?  Very little, other than that different countries have different strategies, but I must admit that the 6.70€ surcharge in Madrid exceeds what I feel is reasonable considering the standard or living here.  It’s literally highway robbery.  So I began the year just a little bit poorer than my impoverished life of the year before.

      And just when I went to bed that night, I put on some piano music. And the city was very, very quiet.

Why I Fear the New Year

I try to be as sensitive as possible to the early moments of the year in order to get a sense of which direction things will go for the next 365 days.  It’s an irrational procedure, frankly, and one which warrants an entire array of criticism from the scientific field, but since this post is not to be published in some scholarly journal, they can stick it.

     Anyway, the first couple of hours were greeted with cheers, and hugs and kisses and, of course, the twelve grapes of good luck which preceded everything.  The challenge of stuffing my cheeks with twelve pieces of fruit as a kickoff to the next lap around the sun does depart from the normal manner of celebration in this world, but it happens to be one of my favorite Spanish traditions precisely because of its uniqueness.

     That does not mean I haven’t been confronted with some near death experiences over the years as I took on gulping the daunting dozen down with a degree of aggressiveness.  And I have to admit it doesn’t quite match sidling up to the best looking girl at the party and planting her with the year’s first kiss, but it certainly provides for a little excitement.

     This year was a little more relaxed than usual since the grandmother at the home I was dining at set about peeling everyone’s grapes to reduce the difficulty of the task and, in passing, avoid any unnecessary gagging.  After all, you only have 36 seconds to perform and complete the task.  I have always felt that peeling was kind of like cheating and that doing so could have and unfavorable effect on my fortune that year.

      I never peel.  I told her I was a “skinner” myself.

      But she insisted and I wasn’t comfortable with ending the year by telling an 80-year-old woman to shove it, so I acquiesced.

     It’s an arduous task and worth avoiding at all cost, but as long as someone else is doing it for you, well then I guess it’s all right.  It was kind of her to offer and execute the task and I was grateful.

     Midnight came and with it, the imminent tolling of the bells.  Before them you have the tingling of the four quarter-hour chimes, and then onto the main event.  We rolled through the procedure rather uneventfully, with the exception that the fleeced fruit tended to stick to the plastic wrapping, causing a few moments of mild panic amid the thought I would find myself caught behind the rest of the country’s grape-gulpers, but I managed to stay with the crowd.

     Then it was music and dancing for the next couple of hours.  I have to admit that this is something I cherish aboutSpain.  People from 3 to83 inthe same room laughing and singing and dancing to the corniest music you could imagine.  And having a blast.  I have trouble revealing my corporal movement flaws in front of even the smallest of crowds, but I did get up and shook my booty from time to time.  The Spanish, on the other hand, can be totally unabashed about their dancing, especially when they are bashed.  So, it was good fun for everyone.

     Around three o’clock I decided I had had enough and told everyone I was leaving, which was met with the usual, “Why so early?!” which is no exaggeration since there were people in Madrid who hadn’t even begun to go out yet, let alone retire to their beds.  It’s a tricky challenge bidding farewell to a group of Spaniards who inevitably are going to insist you stay on.  In the past I would give in, but I’ve learned that all you have to do is be steadfast for about three or four critical minutes and then you are home free.

     My biggest concern once released from the home was whether or not I would actually find an unoccupied taxi, since New Year’s can be notorious for this problem and a rainy one, as was the case, would make things that much more adverse.

     As I approached the corner though, I noticed several taxis zipping by with their wet tires kicking up water and making that crisp damp sound on the asphalt.  I also observed that most had that distinctive green light on, indicating that they were free.  Hmm, I thought to myself, maybe it’s because I am not right in the center of town and in a direction which is going towards the heart of the city.  It can make a difference you know.  Most free taxis come from the outskirts while most taken ones head away from the center.

     The long and short of it was that I was glad to see I wouldn’t have to wait at all.  I plopped into the back seat, told the driver where I wanted to go with a tired voice, and zapped off a few Whatsapp messages wishing various people the best for the New Year.

     As we approached my corner I glanced at the meter and saw that it was 6.30€.  Being the holidays and a time for cheerful generosity, I mentally decided that I would up the final fare to 7.00€ and treat the man to a fairly plush tip.  After all, the poor man had to work on a night like this instead of being with his family or friends.

     My calculation for the gratuity my startle some of my readers who are not familiar with the way things work here.  In Spain, people don’t feel obliged to tip at all and often won’t, which is why a 50-cent keep-the-change is many times met with a sincere how of gratitude.

      In any event, the cab comes to a full stop, and just as I am tugging out my wallet, I see the man punching all sorts of buttons on the meter, the word, supplement appears on the screen, followed by the amount, 6.70€.  The man says in a natural tone, “that’ll be 13.00€ all together.”

      “What?!  Are you sure?” What was he, drunk?

      “Yeap.  New Year’s supplement.”

       It was late at night, ladies and gentlemen, and even though I was astounded by the extra cost tagged on, as you can see it was higher than the actual fare, I was in no position to dispute it because I did not know.  It had been so long since I last took a taxi on New Year’s Eve, I really couldn’t say if it was true.  The driver certainly seemed normal about it.  He had heard me speak; maybe it picked up on my foreign accent, which has stubbornly never disappeared.  Had I just been taken for a ride with a 106% mark-up?  Great.  What a way to begin the year.

     This man was certainly getting no tip from me.

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.