Wednesday, September 28, 2005

El Orbayu

On this morning´s ride from the Asturias airport to Ovinana, the cab driver gave me a lesson on rain. Like Eskimos with snow, the asturianos have their own words for the different kinds of rain that fall. The most common is the the orbayu, that light, misting rain that sometimes seems like it will never end.

Our conversation reminded me how much I love Asturias, even though the orbayu was falling as I thought about it. And then we arrived.

I hadn´t been at the mill in almost two months, so there was the usual dampness, and mold, and dead insects to deal with. But unexpected was the blue tarp covering the rear of our car like a diaper. Afraid of what I would find underneath, I looked anyway: there was the back window, shattered into a million slivers, with one rock shaped hole in the middle.

Into every life...

Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Evil Empire

Spanish newspapers have an unusual way of promoting sales. Instead of lowering subscription rates (no one subscribes, anyway), they create little gifts to lure buyers while they're standing at the kiosk. Often these gifts are the first book or DVD in a series--"Great Historical Novels"; "Nature Documentaries"; "Breads of the World"— but they can also be "fasciculos" which are a few pages in a book that you then slowly put together yourself in a handsome binder also provided by the newspaper. And sometimes the gift is a collectible that it's hard to image anyone wanting: miniature clocks, fake antique toy cars, tea cups.

In any case, you get the first one for free. After that, the thinking goes, you'll be compelled to complete the series, paying 6.95 a week for your tiny timekeeper or your few pages on marine biology for the next 145 weeks. And of course you have to buy the paper. But apparently, it works: the papers spend far more money advertising their giveaways than they do advertising, say, the quality of their journalistic content.

Today, the freebie with El Mundo was the Lonely Planet guide to Rome, first in a series of some 30 city guides to come. As giveaways go, this was a good one, so I bought it, as did the woman in front of me at the kiosk. Which launched the kiosk guy with the badly-dyed hair (three people work there now: the dyed-hair guy who is always smoking; the tall, mildly crazy guy who occasionally mumbles things I can't understand; and Antonio, the reticent owner. Antonio's dad used to work there too; he was my favorite) into a tirade against us. He lambasted our weakness in the face of nefarious capitalist techniques, and denounced the evil empire of newspaper publishing that could so malevolently lure innocents into buying things they didn't want. He knew, of course, that neither I nor the other woman usually buys El Mundo. "You've surrendered," he cried.

Saturday, September 24, 2005


Tonight I was almost run over by a horde of fleeing top-mantas. Or should that be top-mantalistas? They are the guys--mostly Latin American or African—who stand on the street selling pirated CDs and DVDs. They display their wares on a blanket. Hence the "manta," although most often the cloth in question is really a sheet, or a portion of a sheet. No one calls it a top-sábana, however.

Where the "top" comes from is anyone's guess. It is true that the CDs lie on top of the blanket/sheet, but the Spanish only use the word "top" in reference to people like Kate Moss: she is, or at least before she lost her H&M contract, she was a "top model" practicing "top modelismo."

In any case, the equipment used in top-mantalismo is surprisingly uniform: everyone ties two pieces of rope diagonally to each corner of the cloth so that they cross in the center. That way, when the cops show up, the top mantalista can yank on the center knot and pull all his goods into a neat little bundle, the easier to run with. It's a common sight, actually, these groups of young guys tearing down the street like athletic Santa Clauses, homely little sacks tossed over their shoulders. Half the time, they look like they're having fun.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Our neighbor up the road in Asturias called us in Madrid to tell us she was worried about our car. Nothing's wrong with it mind you, and it's parked behind a locked gate, but still, she was worried. Nice to know someone is looking out for us, but still, a strange reason to call. Until she got to subject number two: her grandson, who is 25 years old, wants to be a journalist, and lives in Madrid. Would we call him?

"Your grandmother asked us to call" doesn't seem the right opening, and after that, I can't think of the first thing to say to a 25-year-old Spanish stranger. But his grandmother's property would be the first one to get a new cement post should we connect to the electrical system, so I suppose call is what we'll do.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Shopping: La Antoja

Found a new gourmet foodstuffs store yesterday afternoon, while I was walking through Lavapies. The tagline for La Antojá translates as "caprices of the palate," and that's pretty much what you get: all those things that the Spanish consider delicacies. Walnuts in honey; artisanal jams; smoked red peppers; and—of course—white asparagus.

(Speaking of which, I once got slammed on a foodie website for an article I wrote in which I referred to white asparagus as "repellently flaccid." To each his own.)

But back to those caprices of the palate: with the exception of Italian pastas and French foie gras, most everything at La Antojá comes from Spain, and most everything comes packaged in pretty little jars and tins. The red-haired owner Belinda was fretting about the unpredictable weather (she couldn't decide if it was time to take down the ice cream freezer), but was helpful nonetheless, steering me away from a bottle of Somontano ("too expensive," she said) and toward a very-attractively labeled Azul y Garanza, from Navarra.

La Antojá is located on c/Argumosa, 26, in Madrid.


Saturday, September 17, 2005

Saturday Morning

Saturday is the big shopping day in Madrid. I had planned to get up early to beat all the Marias, but jetlag got the better of me. When I finally made it to the market, there was a long line of women waiting for their tomatoes and melons, plus a few men with lists, clearly sent by their wives.

We buy all our produce at Pedro's stand in the Mercado de la Cebada. Pedro loves his fruit, calls me guapa, and always throws in a little something extra--radishes, a ripe fig-- for free. But his mother works there too, and she is elderly, tectonically slow, and quite insistent about adding the total by hand, which she does creatively. Somehow I always get stuck with her. I'm convinced that all the other shoppers connive to sic her on the stupid American.

Shopping in Madrid is like that. You get the fresh produce, the beautiful displays, the personal service that are saddly missing from your average American supermarket. But you are also plagued by an unspoken code of rules diabolical in its complexity. No one ever had to figure out how to avoid Pedro's mother at a Giant Eagle.

To say nothing of the opprobrium. Today, I tried to buy fish, even though I don't really know how to cook anything except tuna steaks and salmon. Sole, I thought, would be nice. I chose my fish guy because his helpers are both Latin American, and I figured that they might be more sympathetic to a fellow foreigner who was a little sketchy on fish preparation. But no. I asked the smiling Ecuadorean man for sole, and he pointed toward a sign that said, "leguado de miga," which translates literally as "crumb sole," whatever that means . I said, "Two please, fileted." He snorted.

Crumb sole, apparently, are too small to filet. Also apparently, any Spaniard would know this. So I moved on to the besugo, which is bigger than lenguado de miga, and is either sea bass or sea bream, I can never remember which. Again I asked for it to be fileted. He looked at me with consternation, but he picked the fish up and weighed it. Then he passed it off to his boss. I had the distinct impression that by previous agreement, dealing with the unreasonable requests of American women who don't know the first thing about fish clearly fell to someone higher up the fishmonger ladder.

I took my besugo home where I cut it into strips, fried it in olive oil, and sprinkled it with lemon and Maldon salt. It was delicious.

A little history

How did we come to own a mill in Asturias that may drive us to bankruptcy and mental instability? It started like this: we bought an apartment in Madrid (you can rent it, if you want). After a few months, in which we felt inordinately happy with our choice, we realized--oops--that we would never be able to get our dog, a Labrador who suffers some neuroses uncharacteristic of the breed, including a fear of stairs and ventilation grates , up the four flights. Plus, we had always wanted a place in country. So we rented a car and started driving.

Our original plan was to start in western Asturias and cross the north to the Pyrenees. But we never made it out of Asturias. The very first place we saw was the mill, and the very first thing Geoff said upon seeing it was, "Holy shit." We kept looking--we aren't THAT impulsive—and ended up seeing at least a dozen places. The three that made it into the finals were a pseudo-Casa de Indianos in the Picos de Europa, that had wide-plank oak floors, a ton of land, and an unfortunate telephone pole that blocked the mountain view from the galleria; an inn with gardens and chickens just outside Villaviciosa; and the mill. After much agonizing debate, and one return visit, house number 2 won: at that point we were well into our let's-till-the-earth-and-run-a-bed-and-breakfast fantasy. But the bank saw things differently.

So the mill it was. The owner was a famous Spanish actress (that's her to the left) in the 1960s, but her son was the one doing the selling. He assured us that the place was totally self-sufficient (the stream that runs underneath provided water for the house and powered a turbine that produced electricty) and perfectly comfortable to live in. We thought, "Great. A few cosmetic changes, a little landscaping, some new furniture." Hah.