A Relaxing Cup of Café con Leche

I try to avoid getting involved in these matters, but sometimes I just can’t resist.  Madrid’s mayor, Ana Botella, made some recent remarks about the city when campaigning for its candidacy to host the Olympics.  Madrid got bounced in the first round of the final selection, and Ana Botella became the brunt of countless jokes regarding her seemingly ragged use of English.

      The catch phrase is now “a relaxing cup of café con leche (coffee with milk)”, and it has become so famous that even my little 3rd-graders know about it, and so infamous that you can now buy coffee mugs online with the sentence stamped on them in different colors and fonts.

      It has been ridiculed and parodied beyond belief, with jokes and videos spreading like wildfire far and wide throughout the social networks .  Such was the uproarious laughter that I finally caved in and decided to check out on Youtube the video and endure the suffering for myself and by myself, in the comfort of my living room.

      I’ll be as brief as possible, and resort to my expertise as a teacher to provide a fairly balanced opinion.  To be honest, it wasn’t great but it was a far cry from the disaster that I expected given the backlash it received.  Ana spoke with a heavy accent, had several fairly serious pronunciation issues, and clearly hasn’t mastered the language.  That explains the forced diction and the artificial gestures.  Basically she looked as if she was trying to pull off the tough task of speaking in public in a foreign language and she did the best she could.  For the most part the speech was standard, not very inspired, promotional garble which was delivered with difficulty.  And the famous Spanglish that everyone is laughing at hardly exists.  The speech lasts 2.50 seconds and more than halfway through it, she spits out the now notorious “a relaxing cup of café con leche in the Plaza Mayor.”  She mentions the Madrid de los Austrias, and immediately adds what that all means in English. The rest of the talk was given in English.

      First of all, you can call a cup of coffee “relaxing”.  Several “experts” from Spain have expressed to me their utter disbelief that Botella would use such an adjective to describe a cup of joe, but the fact is you can.  Just to clarify that one.  As for the use of “café con leche”, that was just a little friendly use of local language.  Probably not the best choice, but still, even I could see that.  Plus, it’s not that easy to translate.

      Verdict: the speech wasn’t topnotch, and Botella’s English needs work, but it wasn’t horrible either and certainly not worthy of the thrashing it took.

      So, after listening to two weeks of relentless criticism and watching the clip myself, I have come to the conclusion that the event has accentuated two very grave and present facts: Spain’s English level is still wanting; and God help you if you make a mistake because if you do you’ll become the laughing stock of the nation.

      As for the first part, there is nothing surprising about that. Spain has for years suffered from an inferiority complex when it comes to speaking this language.  It’s the famous “asignatura pendiente”, as they say here.  Back in the 90s, most parents came to me saying that they couldn’t help their kids because they had learned French in school.  Then came the gradual switch to English, which, though taught throughout a student’s life, produced poor results.  Poor teaching and general disregard for the language.  On top of that, as many will tell you, Spain dubs all of its TV programs and movies.  The industry is one of the finest in the world, but it does have its downside.  It prevents youths from picking up the language naturally, and, what’s worse, it fosters an aversion toward the language.  Few people spoke it, and not very well at that.  And I am talking about the capital.  Once out in the smaller cities or in the country, forget it.

       The effects of the past faulty educational setup and social antipathy are still being felt today.  A recent report rated Spain in the middle ground when it comes to competence in English, 18th, to be exact, and behind some 15 other European nations. That’s not so hot.  But I am here to tell you that, despite the rejection and the mediocre teaching techniques, it is heads and tails above what it used to be.  With the arrival of bilingual education (Madrid is nearly at the forefront of this movement) things are turning around considerably.  We are still talking about a change that will require a generation or two to come into its fullest fruition, but it will happen. I am not concerned.

      What does unsettle me is the vicious blasting over practically nothing.  I browsed through about the first 100 comments and couldn’t find a single one that had anything fair to say about it.  The chiding was merciless, but that behavior is as traditional here as watching soccer. The Spanish are often the first to admit that they don’t like to speak English because of their sense of embarrassment about saying the wrong thing.  This I find amusing because their love of swearing shows they don’t seem to have any qualms about blurting out in Spanish, “Holy shit! That motherfucker is really pissing me off,” in front of their grandmother.

      Then again, after the berating Ana Botella received, I don’t blame them for not wanting to utter a single word of English, because look what happens to you when you slip up.  I would shut my mouth too.

      So suddenly everyone is an expert in English.  In some cases even more so than the English themselves.  Take the Comunidad de Madrid’s standardized exam to check on the progress of its bilingual program.  The actually exam itself was Cambridge’s Young Learners of English tests which are recognized by the European Union as valid measurements of a child’s level of the language.  The exam has three parts – Speaking, Listening, and a combined part on Reading & Writing – which are graded from 1 (being the worst) to 5 shields.  That means a student can receive a total of 15 shields.

      Cambridge oddly asserts that there is no passing or failing in these exams.  However, if you receive ten or more shields, then you are ready to go on to the next level.  Hmm.  I’ll have to think about that one.

      In any event, if you can achieve that number, then you have what is considered to be an A1 level.  Cambridge does not specify a minimum in any one category, as long as you obtain ten.  This standard is admitted by the European Union.

      The Comunidad de Madrid has decided that it would use the Cambridge exams but assess students differently in two ways:

        1)    Evaluate just the Speaking and Listening, requiring a total of 7 shields to pass, and 4 have to be in speaking, and at least 3 have to be in listening.  So, in short, they require at least a 70% on a test, and, in some cases, that isn’t enough, since if the speaking is a three and the listening is a four, you don’t pass.  On one occasion, a student had a 5 on listening and a 3 on speaking (yes, that’s 80%), and failed.

        2)    They could also assess all three parts in which a pupil needed to obtain 11 shields (and at least 4 in speaking), to pass.  In theory, a child could get up to 13 out of 15 shields and still be turned down.  How’s that for motivating.

      Of course, none of this has anything to do with how Cambridge looks at it, and that’s considering it’s their test.  The Comunidad de Madrid simply decided that it was going to prove to the world that its standard was tougher than the rest without really justifying it at all.

      This kind of cockiness is known in Spanish as “chulería”, and in Madrid, it’s as common and typical as a relaxing cup of café con leche.


Marrow for Mathew / Médula Para Mateo

Here he is.  A great looking kid taking a serious summer power nap.  His name is Mateo (Mathew), he’s from Spain, he’s three months old, and though he looks as healthy as a horse, unfortunately he’s not.   He has been diagnosed with leukemia.   No one in his family has proven to be a compatible doner, a sad fact which has prompted a swift and very effective reaction to search one out.   His story has gone international and has received massive support from both celebrities and everyday people like you and me.

From what I understand, to date none has been found, so I am beseeching you to go to this website and read his story and, if you can, find out how you can donate in your country.  You see, even if it turns out that you aren’t the right match for this little guy, you may be one for someone like him who is also desperately in need of your help.


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.

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.

Images of Spain: Fighting Evictions

This is just off Arenal, right in front of the Maty costume store.  And right next to Caja Madrid.  Here you can sign petitions to stop the madness raging in Spain of late.

          You see, the down side of going to any lengths to own a home is that when things get ugly, and they’ve gotten pretty grim over the past few years, holding onto that little parcel of your dreams can turn into a nightmare.  I will refrain from adopting too lighthearted an approach today, because there is little amusing or witty to tell.

         Talk of the week in Spain has centered around the rampant evictions taking place all over the country, moved and promoted by the banks, the very same financial institutions the government and our tax money, as well as Germany’s and the rest of the European Union’s, has had to bail out before they went belly up.  That put us in a 200-billion-euro hole and now everyone has to do their part to keep the country from sinking and even possibly leaving the euro, something which will probably not happen, much to the disappointment of the British.  And now even we teachers are having to grin and bear it, this was unthinkable months ago, as they plan to cut out our Christmas bonus.  That’s the famous paga extra, which by the way, let’s get the facts straight, is not an extra paycheck the local authorities deliver out of the goodness of their hearts but rather one-fourteenth of our salary.  They aren’t canceling a bonus; they are reducing our annual income by 7.2%.

            How have the banks shown their appreciation for such generosity and understanding despite their professional screw-ups?  By tossing thousands of families out onto the street for not having enough money to pay the mortgage.   Thanks guys.  God bless you.  Now everyone knows that some of these cases may have been the result of a particular person mismanaging their budget, but many are honest families who are now a part of the growing 25% non-workforce, and simply can’t keep up.  Where’s their bailout?  Where’s their rescue?   The forcible ousting has created immense tension, which sadly culminated in the tragic death this weekend of a 53-year-old woman in that Basque Country.  Hers is the second death due to these circumstances in three weeks.

            To give you an idea of the seriousness of the situation, the main political parties have come together for once in their lives and are working to stop the evictions until a better and fairer system can be set up.  Some banks have already taken that initiative.  This may become effective as early as Monday.

            That may spell miraculously good news for those poor people who are on the verge of losing their homes, but it will have come a little late for Amaia, not to mention for the 400,000 alreadyevicted homeowners since the crisis began.

Halloween Masquerade 4

Yes I was going to talk about the label; I just needed a little more time.  You see, my other daughter did manage to find a decent skeleton costume at the Chinese 5-and-dime, which was a near miracle because you never know what those things are going to look like until you put them on.  And more often than not your first reaction is, “Skeletons don’t have tails, do they?  Don’t worry, I’m sure grandma can do something about it.”

         Later on I was picking up the cardboard label from the floor where it had been deposited and forgotten about a couple of hours before, when I stopped to take a better look at it.  The pause was well worth it.  It is not often that so little can say so much; almost like a haiku.

         It wasn’t my intention to devote so much attention to something destined to end up in the city dump in the near future, I think I’ll forgo recycling thing, but there was just too much there to ignore.  To begin with, there was an issue concerning the photograph that depicted the costume: a young man dressed up as a glaring skeleton with an arming cap and wielding an executioner’s axe. The model looked about as threatening as a mailman, but he gets credit for trying.  Everything up to that point was fine until I glanced at the vertically printed sign on the side that read “Pink Fairy”.  That didn’t look quite right.  In fact, the full name was “Pink Fairy: Adult Costume”.  That sounded even odder.

         I scratched my cheek and sat down for a little think.   Obviously, there had been a mistake at the assembly line.  The wrong name had been matched with the wrong costume, from what I could tell.  It is my guess that they have probably picked up on this error by now, unless, of course, they don’t know that “pink fairy” does not mean “skeleton with an axe”.  In that case, I am comforted by the thought that should the crisis in Spain rage on so long that even the English teachers will have to abandon the country, and that would be serious because, after all, we are about the only sector thriving in these rough times, since now that no one is working, all anyone does is try to perfect their English so that they can leave country.

         The day we have to go will mean turning off the lights and locking up.

         Oh well, assuming this was a simple oversight back at the factory, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.  But I have to admit that the misnomer did grab my attention, and now that I was nearly reclined with the cardboard label in both hands like an iPad, I decided to move on and study what else the packaging had to say.  The result was the discovery a whole world of curiosities.

         For example, the size category had two points worth remarking on.  You had:

          □      Small/medium

          □      Medium/large

         □      One size fits all

Now I am sharp enough to get the idea of the “small/medium” and “medium/large”, but what was the “one size fits all” all about?  I mean, if you have an all-encompassing outfit, why would you need the others?  And what the heck is “one-size-fits all”?  This wasn’t a bathing cap or a condom, it was a costume to represent Death.  Yet, according to the label, my thirteen-year-old daughter and a friend of mine who weighs 280lbs. could count on the same suit with the same results.  If true, this would be a stunning find in my book, worthy of international recognition.

       Once she tried it on, though, I new no miracle would happen.  It was one size fits all, as long as all sizes were one.

         I moved on.  Just over to the right, down in the corner, I spotted a helpful caveat: Warning! Keep away from fire.  Did it suggest that the outfit was particularly favorable for engulfing the wearer in flames?  Or was this just a simple safety tip for life in general?  After all, fire does tend to be hazardous to anyone who gets too close to it, even if you are buck naked, and most clothes tend to succumb to its heat no matter what they are made of.  This warning is a standard caution for all costumes, but when you think about it, it seems strange to single them out.

         Not yet satiated, I turned the label over and found more.  Here was another piece of advice: Not Recommended for Children under Age 3.  Well, that surely cleared up things.  It was an adult-sized costume, albeit called Pink Fairy, but I guess this notice must have been the result of some prior lawsuit, like “Do Not Dry Your Pet in the Microwave Oven”.

         The very last item got another chuckle out of me: it was the part that said 100% polyester right above the green recyclable symbol.  There is something about polyethylene plastic and making the world a cleaner place that makes me think they shouldn’t even be in the same room together, let alone complement each other.  But as it turns out, polyester is apparently quite recyclable and even coveted by many companies.

         Oh, well.  I conceded that point.  They weren’t perfect, but nor was I.

Halloween Masquerade 3

Up until recently the likelihood of getting pleasure from a costume package label seemed remote to me.  That was until I decided to read one.

         You see, one of my daughters was unable to find a good skeleton outfit at Maty’s, so we resorted to the local chino to solve our problem, as is so often the case.  Chinese run businesses have risen exponentially over the last decade.  They have expanded in both number and sectors.  Once they cornered the cheap 5-and-dime and convenient store markets, but now they have moved on to clothes retail.  For a while there no one went to these places because it said you were cheesy and couldn’t afford something better.  That was until everyone started running into all these people they knew.  Suddenly everyone realized everyone else was apparently just as cheesy as them, and like a bull charging out onto the bullring, cheesiness was cool.

         These places are like miniature department stores.  Rare is the occasion when you catch them off guard by asking for something they don’t have. It’s mindboggling.  It’s like what they say about the alphabet.  You have a finite number of letters with can produce an infinite number of words.  Here’s the same thing.  The owners are limited in space, but they seem to manage to get everything they need onto those shelves.

         Try something like: “Do you have those tiny screws you use to fasten eyeglasses?”

         And you’ll hear without the blink of an eye:  “Aisle four, next to the colanders.”

         “Thanks,” you say, somewhat rattled and unsure of the relationship between a strainer and a small metal fastener, “I was just going to check there.”

         The employees at these stores always talk in aisles.  Talking aisles appears to provide just the right comfort in their lives, as if by doing so they were trying to say, “I have everything under control here.  I know where everything is.”  It’s what they know best. It keeps everything in order.  Heck, they even feed you with information on aisles even when they have no reason to send you down one.  From time to time I like to put them to the test and requested a product that I’m sure they won’t have, like a lacrosse ball or a Neil Sedaka anthology CD, just to see the look of disappointment on their faces.  I’ll say, for example, “I’m looking for a dishwasher for my car?”

         Much to my frustration, they often respond completely unfazed by the failure.  They just say they don’t have one without a flinch, as if owning an automobile without a dishwasher weren’t important.  “No dishwasher.  No car.  I have dishwasher soap.  Aisle 7.”

         “I don’t want the soap if I don’t even have the machine.  And I certainly don’t care what aisle it’s in.”

         I used to think they didn’t care if they didn’t offer something I was looking for because it wasn’t an item they felt was necessary to have in their inventory.  But maybe it isn’t that way.  Sometimes my fruitless orders end up on those shelves.  Maybe they are like oriental Zara’s, where customer requests are noted and sent to the main factory and if there is enough of an oral demand they can have a specimen out in just two weeks.  Somehow I get the feeling the same thing happens here. They mull over my request and a week later have a massive dishwasher on sale, “aisle five, next to the toothpicks and the flower pots.”

         Naturally.  Anyplace but next to the dishwasher liquid.

         Did I say I was going to talk about costume package labels?  Oh, well.

Halloween Masquerade

Ever since Vicente Rico’s closed down a few years ago, the choices available for getting a halfway decent costume in Madrid have been reduced drastically, by about 50%, I’d say.  Now there is only one place that I can think of that offers any serious range of costumes without having to resort to the Chinese 5-and-dime stores, which is where you end up going in the end.  But we will get to them later.  Vicente Rico had a store just off Serrano.  It had been there for as long as I can remember before it suddenly disappeared.  I guess the crisis got the best of it.

         So, now my daughters and I slip down to the center to Maty, another classic in town.  Maty opened its doors in 1943, right smack in the heart of the crude post-Spanish Civil War days.  It originally sold dance slippers, but later expanded into marketing outfits related to dance and ballet as well.  It eventually diversified its offer to include costumes to cater to the growing demand at Carnival and Halloween.

         Halloween has no place in Spanish tradition but it is growing in popularity, and in part English teachers like me are to blame.  It was supposed to be a fun way of incorporating culture from the English-speaking world into the classroom.  But you don’t just mention getting dressed up as a monster and raking in 5lbs. of candy and expect children to passively sit back and accept it as an entertaining curiosity of faraway lands.  Eventually one child stands up and demands in a low voice, “I want that too!  And I want it now!”

         Wearing a witched costume and getting a muffin doesn’t mean the kids get any closer to the true spirit of the day.  Halloween just sort of comes and goes in the psyche of the children here, and they don’t seem to know when or how or why.  That sppoky, eerie, haunting feel you sense in the days leading up to that magical night, doesn’t take hold here.  It’s simply not deeply rooted enough, which is why you get scenes like the following.

         I’ll write a date on the blackboard and ask, “O.K. kids, what does October 31st mean?”

         Most will stare back with blank looks on their faces and three will shout, “Thanksgiving!”

         “All right, let’s try that one again.  October 31st.  October 31st!  Come on!”

         One raises his hand and announces, “My birthday is on the 28th.”

         “Fantastic Pedro.  That wasn’t what I had in mind but God bless you.”

         How could they not know this?  They love the ay but they can never recall when it is.   Back home that date is ingrained in your memory before you even learn the names of brothers and sisters.  It’s simply that important.

          I’ll need to change strategies.  “Let me give you a little hint which I think will help out.  I’ll slowly spell it on the bored and you can guess when you think you know the answer.  Here we go:  H-A-L-…”

         “¡Hala Madrid!”  One screams with delight, proudly under the impression that he has gotten the answer right.  He has just called out Real Madrid’s victory cry, and the class has suddenly been interrupted by an ensuing heated debate about what the best soccer team is.   There tale doesn’t end there.

Madrid in Crisis 7

There’s a man in the southern region of Andalusia, the place where all the flamenco dancing goes on, so they say, who is looting from the supermarkets…in broad daylight…and while they are still open.  He and some friends burst in, grab a shopping cart, full it up to the brim and walk out with it without paying a dime.  Mostly staples, mind you, but food all the same.  Then he takes it over to the local soup kitchen and stocks their pantries so that they can go on providing for the ultra poor. Andalusiahas always been an area where people have struggled to get by, as well as have managed heavily on state funds.  Naturally, in these days of crisis, they are having an especially tough go of it.  Now we have a modern-day Robin Hood.  A kind of contemporary run on the Bastille.  People are sick and tired.  There is only one minor detail: the perpetrator is a member of the Andalusian parliament and mayor of his hometown.  My question is, what is this guy still doing loose?  If I had tried the same thing, no matter how good my intentions were, I guarantee I wouldn’t get the same kind of treatment, regardless of the fact I am a vigilant of the city.

       It’s clear he did it to get attention, to call attention to the dire situation of many people in the region; it’s clear that he did it to call attention, to get attention rather so that everyone knew who had the balls to do it. Now everyone is talking about him, even in the international press.  Maybe his actions will spread.  These things sometimes catch on.  But there are fiestas on the way.  And people want to enjoy6 themselves and not worry.

       The thing is, this man has a political post, actually two (I don’t know how that is possible), and he is flagrantly violating the law, and in a sense encouraging others to do the same.   It’s an act of populism all the way.  A bit childish too.  Surely he’ll do more damage than good for his cause.  I wonder if he too has a perfect place to commit suicide.  I would like to write him a letter with just the following:

Dear Sir, 

I do.  Do you?



       I didn’t end up going back to the fiestas of San Lorenzo.  They can stick it.  It’s Tuesday.  I am still on watch. Everything seems under control. Instead, I went with some friends to the Noviciado section of town to a bar where they were bidding farewell to a friend, a countryman, who was returning to the States after having lived here in Madrid for God only knows how many years.  Among his contributions to this country was to hold a special event every Tuesday night to drink at special prices, just to make Tuesday special in that way.  They introduced me to him.  He had puffy cheeks.  His shirt looked a little too big for him.  We said hello.  Then we said goodbye.  Forever.

            We went to a new restaurant.  The place was famous because, some thirty years ago, someone got shot and killed.  They got rubbed out.  It was drug-related.  I guess he could say he was lucky that he never had to live through this crisis anymore.  Depending.

            The owner of the place showed the basement, the downstairs where it all happened.  It was a beautiful place.  It was all walled with bricks, had towering arches near the windows, and high ceilings.  Almost like a church or a chapel or a basilica.  He pointed to a corner listlessly. “They say this is where they shot the guy.”

            I nodded silently.  “Where’s the bathroom?” I asked.

            “This way.  Follow me.  I need to go too.”

            Back upstairs, there was this elderly couple who was sitting next to us on high stools.  They were the owners of the café next door.  They had closed up for the night and come over for a nightcap.  The man was cheerful, talkative and he still liked to make innocent passes at the young women.  His wife was quieter and had resigned herself to accepting the man the way he was.  I think it was part of their routine.  Finally she said she was tired and said it was time to go.  She tugged him by the arm and spoke firmly but with that touch of endearment that made it sound that she really wasn’t mad.  At least that day.

         He rose and they headed for the door.  He turned around before the left and sang a song to us in his still strong voice:

        I love you all

       More than my life

       More than my death

       More than the air I breathe;

       I love you all

“¡Buenas noches!”

        Night. More crisis tomorrow.

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!