Monday, February 27, 2006

The Woodcutters' Revenge

For a little over a week now, woodcutters have been clearing a piece of land near the molino. I can't say I like them: they make a lot of noise, they tear up the already muddy paths, and, oh yes, they're cutting down a bunch of innocent trees.

So when they ill-advisedly decided to drive their big trunk-hauler down the teeny overgrown path that empties into the clearing where we park, only to find the exit blocked by our parked car, I practiced a bit of eco-terrorism on them. First, I pretended like I wasn't home and therefore unavailable to move said car. After about thirty minutes of that, I opened the door and let the by now enraged Levon out, who terrified them for about 30 seconds until he became distracted by a toy. And then I yelled at them a bit, about erosion, and our crumbling fence, and how they path was ours and they didn't have permission to drive down it. (This last bit was something of a fib, but I figured they didn't know otherwise. I was right) They yelled right back, but I felt I had made my point.

I was no more forgiving the next day when I twice found them blocking the road out of the molino; the second time I even threated to file a denuncia, which as far as I can tell, is the ultimate threat in Spain. Soon after, they were keeping to the side of the road, and scowling unhappily at me every time I drove by.

At the end of that same week, the guy from Digital +, our satellite tv provider, showed up to fix our suddenly misbehaving reception. He fiddled for a while with the box, then fiddled some more with the dish, then called me outside. "You want to know your problem?" he asked. I nodded resignedly. He pointed up to a tall patch of eucalyptus trees growing behind the house. "You gotta cut'em down."

Friday, February 24, 2006

Well, At Least She's Consistent

You may remember that several weeks ago the president of the community of Madrid, Esperanza Aguirre, suggested that the new anti-smoking law might be a little too strict. Yesterday, she did indeed sign into effect a ‘revision’ of the national ban that lets workers smoke on the balconies and in the cafeterias of their workplaces, and everybody else during wedding and baptism receptions.

The day before that, however, she decided to go one better than the government on bird flu. Although the ministers of Health and Agriculture have decided that there is no need yet to enclose Spain’s chickens (Spain has yet to find a case of avian flu, though many predict that will come any day now), Aguirre disagreed, and now all farm-raised fowl, including several dozen ostriches on a ranch north of the capital, have to be kept where wild birds can’t reach them.

Madrid’s farmers aren’t happy about the decision, but luckily for the PP, they number far fewer than the comunidad’s smokers. And this way, no one gets to say that Esperanza Aguirre doesn’t care about her citizens’ health.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Whither ETA?

That was the slug for one of the first stories we did that wasn't about the Madrid bombings. And nearly two years later, it is still the question on everyone's mind. For the past month, rumors of an impending truce have been swirling, and Zapatero himself has said that he has information that "the beginning of the end" is near. The possibility has been driving the opposition Popular Party into a frenzy, and statements that the Socialists are "negotiating with terrorists" and conducting politics "on the backs of victims of terror" come in a daily stream.

On Saturday, ETA issued a statement in which it called for compromises, yet made no mention of the supposed truce. Many here take that as a hint that perhaps no cease fire is coming. But that hasn't stopped the hysterical rhetoric of the PP, members of which are now calling for Zapatero's resignation on the grounds that his ETA policies "have failed."

Criticizing Zapatero for a policy that supposedly has him willing to negotiate, and then criticizing him because that policy supposedly fails seems right up there with that old joke about the bad restaurant: "The food was terrible, and the portions were so small!" But calling for his resignation seems downright ridiculous. The PP were in power for 8 years during which dozens of Spaniards were killed, injured or kidnapped in ETA attacks. There has not been a single death or injury since the Socialists have been in power. For this, Zapatero should resign?


Monday, February 20, 2006

Another week, another utility

On Thursday we got an electric hot water heater. Actually, we got it on Wednesday, after Geoff insisted that perhaps the electrician and the plumber could stop blaming each other for his absence and actually meet at our house at the same time. They did, though when Fernando the plumber insulted Nacho the electrician´s electrical acumen, the latter left, leaving the former to install the thing.

Which of course couldn't be done in one day. Bright and early the next morning, there was garrulous Fernando and his taciturn assistant Pedro, hard at work. Several hours later, we had copper pipes where our creaky butane heater used to be, and a shiny white tank in the basement. Only problem was that it didn't work.

Seems maybe Fernando didn't know quite as much about electric water heaters as he professed. That may explain why he cornered me in the kitchen for about an hour to hold forth on how we really should have put in a gas (or gasoil, as it's called here) heater. But I thought I detected a smirk when I called Nacho back to ask for his help.

Next, the internet. Any suggestions, anybody?

Friday, February 17, 2006

Fear of flying

A new terminal opened at Madrid's Barajas airport on February 5. Architecturally, it's supposed to be quite spectacular--it was designed by Richard Rogers, the same guy who did the Pompidou Center in Paris. But I've been avoiding it--flying through it, that is--because I already find airports and check ins and security searches trying enough, and I fear this new terminal will make them more so. In the first week after it opened, the nightly news ran a regular segment on the delays, the lost baggage, the construction remains still in plain view, but those, I imagine, are just opening jitters. The real problem is accessibility--to get to the terminal on public transportation you have to get off the metro and onto a bus (from our apartment this comes after 2 changes and an hour long underground ride), and then on to another bus if your flight happens to leave from terminal TS4 rather than T4. Someday, there will be a metro stop directly at the new wing, but last I heard, the municipal and national governments were arguing about who should pay for it.

And speaking of airports, on a flight from Barcelona today, I was reminded of the rule of Spanish flying: the later in the day you fly, the more delayed your flight will be. Instead of getting some flights off on time, both Iberia and Spanair seem to let the little delays of the day pile up for all their flights. So by the time you get to a 5pm departure, like mine today, you can pretty much count on a half hour retraso. And if you happen to take the last flight of the day, as Geoff did last night, you can count on having the airport to yourself by the time you arrive.

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Monday, February 13, 2006


I spent the better part of two days last week in plastic surgeons’ offices for a story: Spain, it seems, is home to more plastic surgeons who conduct more plastic surgery, than anywhere else in Europe. It was a very strange experience: the expensive modern art on the walls; the pretty assistants who all wear chic matching suits, like salesgirls at Zara; the patients who retreat to the waiting room clutching slightly bloodied ice packs to their face as they wait for the swelling to go down from their Botox shots. But the strangest of all was how normal everything came to seem, the groups of women sitting in chatty, happy groups making it seem like the decision to have a little taken off here, a little tightened there, is no more weighty a decision than what color polish to choose at the manicurist.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Smoking Wars

Every since Spain's smoking ban went into effect on January 1, every bar small enough to legally escape the crackdown—and they are many—has posted a handmade sign on its door advertising the fact. Which means that instead of actually preventing smoking in public, the law is simply shuffling the geography of where smoking takes place.

Meanwhile Esperanza Aguirre, the president of the comunidad--or region--of Madrid, is about to shuffle even more. Her government has drafted a plan to "enact" the anti-tobacco law that in fact disactivates it, allowing smoking in bars as long as the ventilation is good and in offices as long as there is a balcony . After all, she doesn't want smokers "to feel discrimated against." The Minister of Health has responded by calling Aguirre's plan illegal, and suggesting that the presidenta is perhaps willing to jeopardize the health of madrileños in order to win votes. Members of Aguirre's cabinet, in fact her very own councillor for health, has responded by calling for the Minister's resignation. Nothing new there--calling for resignations is what the PP seems to do best these days. The crispación continues.


Monday, February 06, 2006

The cake that ate our electricity

Sure, we were getting a little cocky. Two space heaters, two dehumidifiers, the occasional vacuum cleaner, and all the table lamps you could want. For six glorious days we were environmentally unsound, scarfing down all the electricity we could get our hands on. But it wasn't enough. I had to go and try to bake.

Baking: one of the things, right up there with blow-drying my hair, that would make me feel most at home. And it wasn't anything fancy, just a bizcocho, which is the Spanish version of something between a sponge cake and a pound cake. I had to improvise the recipe since the Spanish recipes I have all called for metric measures, and I only have American ones, conscientiously imported. I had to melt the butter instead of creaming it, since we don't yet have a mixer, but the batter tasted fine.

After the bizcocho had spent three minutes in the oven, however, the power blew--all of it, right as dark was falling. To be honest, I knew that back when we were running off of water power, the oven, which is gas but has an electric broiler, routinely overloaded the circuits. But I had hoped that now that we have some 17,000 watts at our disposal, I'd be able to bake a simple cake. I would be wrong.

So, we turned off the oven, lit all the candles in the house, and finished making dinner. After, as we huddled next to the fire for warmth, Geoff pointed out that since the electricity was already gone we might as well re-light the gas and finish baking the cake. So we did, and spent our Sunday night eating steaming bizcocho in the dark.

The recipe:

2 sticks of unsalted butter, melted
2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. vanilla extract
125 g (sorry. that's the size they come in) plain yogurt.

Mix everything together. Pour into greased baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes. Serve warm.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Eating: Juana la Loca

One of the chief pleasures of urban life is that you can have a neighborhood restaurant, a place where out of the whole sprawling metropolis, you know the food will be good, you know the waiter will greet you by name, you know the bartender will remember how you like your coffee. Technically, I suppose you don’t need to live in a city to have a neighborhood restaurant, but somehow the whole enterprise seems less meaningful if 1) everyone knows you at the post office too and 2) you have no other restaurants to choose from. If one lives, say, in Oberlin, Ohio, the fact that the waiters at Black River Café all know you like your eggs scrambled is not comforting. It is suffocatingly boring.

But in Madrid, it’s a different story. There, my neighborhood restaurant is Juana la Loca. Tucked onto a corner of La Latina, its violet-blue walls are at once soothing and every so slightly chic. The waiters, despite their all-black uniforms, are friendly. There are at least 6 wines available by the glass. The owner, who looks like an older Pedro Almodovar, also owns what may be my favoritely-named restaurant ever, Maldeamores.

The food, needless to say, is great. It’s almost all tapas and pintxos, but innovative ones, like roasted artichokes with shaved parmesan and whole cloves of blanched garlic, or a tuna carpaccio that gets silkiness from a drizzle of almond oil and crunch from saffron-flavored puffed rice. Even the regular suspects come dressed up: humus comes with strips of crisp-fried pita and a sprinkle of pimentón; the onions in the tortilla de patatas are deliciously caramelized.

So truly do I love Juana la Loca that I hesitated to mention it here, afraid it might be overrun. But then I remembered what this blog’s traffic levels are. So, all tens of you, go forth and try Juana la Loca. Tell Gustavo I sent you.

Juana la Loca: Carrera San Francisco 4. Tel: 913640525

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Levon Across the Water

There's a lot to tell about our dog Levon's journey across the water, but I'll leave that for Geoff, who suffered the worst of it. I don't, however, think I'll ever forget the image of him inside his crate,coming toward us on the prongs of a forklift.

He seems to be adapting well, if tentatively, to Spanish life. The mornings with tennis ball on the deserted beach near our house, and the chunks of Asturian beef we guiltily slip him, only help.