Monday, October 31, 2005

It's A Girl

Spain awoke to the news that it had (another) heir: early this morning Letizia gave birth to Leonor, who, according to her grandmother the queen, is healthy, chubby, and a "llorona," --a wailer. Leonor's birth will eventually occasion a reform of the constitution so that women have equal rights to the throne, but that is some time off in the future. For now, a few interesting facts about royal births:

All Spaniards have identification numbers that they use as a combination social security/driver's license number. The "DNI," as it is called, is necessary for everything from paying taxes to setting up a phone account to booking a plane ticket. For most, the number is 8 digits long, but the royal family has the market on the easily-remembered numbers 1-50. The king is 1, the queen is two, and so on through their children and grandchildren. Which makes Leonor #12.

And a little history: Victoria Eugenia, the English-born wife of Alfonso XIII, was the last Spanish queen to give birth in the comfort of her own palace. Apparently, her 12-hour labor was especially arduous, but every time she cried out, her mother-in-law, the Queen Mother, would scold her, "We Spaniards do not scream when we bring a king into the world."

Sunday, October 30, 2005

He Seemed Like Such a Nice Boy

On Thursday in Calella de Palafrugell, all the talk was of Tano, the local bar-owner/artist who was apparently in cahoots with the second-most wanted Nazi in the world. In June, Tano received a wire-transfer for some 170,000 euros from the son of Aribert Heim (also known as "Dr. Death") that, according to the artist, was payment for some paintings. At a sandwich shop just off the beach, Pilar and Lola talked at length about what a great guy Tano is: friendly and kind and a regular in their Tai Chi class. Pilar thought he was in a photo she had, but wasn't sure. And then she said that she had heard he and his wife had bought a huge house in Palafrugell. "So you never know," she sighed.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Eating: El Cisne Azul

After being turned away from an Indian restaurant at 3:35 because the kitchen was "closed" (closed? at 3:35? in Madrid?), my friend Sam and I ended up eating bad-but-expensive sushi for lunch on Wednesday. And not enough of it either, because on the way home we ended up stopping for a dessert of sauteed mushrooms.

Sam had seen the place before, and although he knew it specialized in mushrooms, he had never eaten there. We went in, and it looked for all the world like your typical ca. 1976 Spanish bar, with bad lighting and blaring tv, formica floors covered in used napkins, and turquoise tiles (we later learned the bar is called The Blue Swan, at which point I understood the tiles to be an illustrative touch, though I still have no idea where the swan comes in) covering the walls. The only decoration, such as it was, were the laminated charts depicting wild mushrooms stuck randomly on the door, behind the bar, in the window.

The tapa display case held plates of trompettes de la mort, shitake, hen of the woods, and some irregularly-shaped mushrooms that the Spanish call cow's tongues. We argued about whether boletus in Spanish are porcini in Italian, then ordered them anyway. Sauteed with garlic until they were brown around the edges, a fried egg sitting on top, they were utterly delicious.

Meanwhile, in a corner of the bar, a group of ten men were finishing lunch. Cigars were out, talk was raucous, and there were two open bottles of Ballantines on the table as digestif. As one of the men got ready to leave, he pulled the waiter over and whispered instructions. Seconds later, the waiter came back with a large crate of boletus (which are indeed porcini, and cepes, for that matter), a thick layer of dirt still clinging to their fat stems. He pulled out a couple--they were huge--weighed them, and dropped them into a plastic bag for the man to take home.

The Cisne Azul, c/Gravina, 19; tel. 915213799

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

War Counsel

I spent a few hours yesterday with the folks at the Fundación Francisco Franco. Their offices were much as you'd expect: dark and a bit musty, walls hung with faded tapestries and flags; a paneled board room with a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the Caudillo dressed in full regalia. And the Foundation officers also what you'd expect: elderly, gracious, rather tenaciously nostalgic.

One of the most interesting things to come out of the meeting was the correspondence they showed me between Franco and Lyndon Johnson. It seems that the US president had asked the Generalísimo to send Spanish troops to support the American ones in Vietnam. And Franco's reply was, well, insightful:

"My military and political experience allows me to appreciate the great difficulty of the enterprise in which you are engaged: guerrilla warfare favors the indigenous insurgents, who with very few men can keep contingents of better-armed troops in check. ...War in the jungle is an affair without end.

"I don't know Ho Chi Minh personally, but from his history and his efforts to throw out the Japanese, the Chinese, and the French, we must credit him with being a patriot....Without a doubt, he could be the man that, at this time, Vietnam needs."

Someone should have shown that letter to Aznar.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


When I left Spain at the beginning of October, it was hot and everyone was still wearing sandals. Two weeks later it is still pretty damn warm, but clearly, the collective consciousness-- if not the actual season--has turned, and we are in winter. You can tell because even though I was almost sweating in a suede jacket this morning, everyone around me had on sweaters and scarves and was crossing the Plaza de Oriente like it was frozen tundra. And yesterday, the tables at San Gines were once again full of people drinking hot chocolate.

Another sign of winter: huesos del santo, little sugar-coated marzipan cookies that they make for All Saints Day. The holiday isn't until November 1, but in a bit of American-style commercialism, my bakery has begun selling them. The name translates as "saints' bones"; hence the shape. At La Tahona, they come scored like rotini, and with candied chestnuts, apple, or sweet potato where the marrow would be. My favorite, though, are filled with yema--sweetened egg yolk, which should be disgusting, but isn't.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Feria de los Sentimientos

Walking through the Plaza Mayor this afternoon after two weeks' absence, I was reminded of how dearly the Spanish love a fair. And not just the big ones, that have them dressing up in costumes and drinking til all hours of the morning. Small ones--Feria of the Book, Feria of Used Tchotkes, Feria of Solidarity--all it takes is a few white tents and large speakers. Once, Geoff and I, crossing the Plaza Mayor early on a Saturday morning, were surprised by workers setting up what, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be a Feria of Disease. (In truth, they may have called it a health fair). Flocks of white tents filled the square, each one dedicated to a single, horrifying condition. There was a pancreatic cancer booth, a heart disease booth, even a leprosy booth. Not much action outside that one.

So it was with some curiosity that I entered the roped-off area of today's Feria of Feelings. I pictured graphic goings-on in the tents: wailing, hysterical laughter, screams of pain. But instead it was a children's fair, complete with inflatable Moonwalk (strangely called an "American court") and guys making balloon animals. There were some banners that listed various feelings, and among them "tolerance" and "phobias" were especially prominent, leading me to believe that this fair, like so many Spanish ones, had some subtle political statement to make. I just couldn't figure out what it was.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Eating in Salamanca: Zazu

I was in Salamanca yesterday, with time left over for lunch. My plan had been to take a cab directly to Chez Victor, which I had loved--especially a dessert whose only feature I remember is its luscious caramel sauce--when I ate there many years ago with my mom. But when I got there yesterday, it suddenly occurred to me that Chez Victor was probably expensive, and there was no menu outside to persuade me otherwise. So I opted instead for what looked to be a very charming, and far more economical, restaurant around the corner, called Zazu.

And it was charming, in its way, with deep blue walls and windows open on the Plaza de la Libertad. The restaurant called itself "Mediterranean", which translated mostly as Italian, with a few Spanish touches thrown in. I ordered the menu del dia (salad, pasta, dessert, wine, 12 euros) and asked for a glass of water, which in Spain always mean tap water. The waiter--long, dark hair, a little less than fastidious--said, "Of course," and then proceeded not to bring it. When I asked him again, some 20 minutes later, he said, "Sure, but we only have bottles." And then he brought the loud British lady next to me a glass of tap water for her medicine.

Salad was one of those weird concoctions with random vegetables (steamed carrots, raw celery) thrown in with the too-sweet dressing. But the gnocchi with chicken, bacon, arugula and sun-dried tomatoes came together well. Still, I found myself wishing I had stayed with my first impulse.

Zazu is at Plaza de la Libertad, 8, in Salamanca.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Things Done and Undone

Here is the list of things I hoped to accomplish on this last trip to Asturias:

  • Get the car inspected

  • Get the car registered

  • Get permission from all concerned to put electrical posts on their property

  • Get permission from the local government to put electrical posts along the road to the molino

  • Deposit the money so that Viesgo will connect us to the electrical system

  • Get the hot water heater fixed

  • Maybe do a little painting

Here is the list of things I actually accomplished on this last trip to Asturias:

  • Left the car (still unrepaired) at the shop so that when I return, the rear window will have been replaced

  • Got a map showing us who all the neighbors are along our prospective electrical route

  • Got permission from one of them

  • Made official request to local government for permission to put up electrical posts

  • Deposit the money so that Viesgo will connect us to the electrical system

  • Got hot water heater fixed, but now it shoots huge flames whenever lit; probably needs to be re-fixed

Part of the problem is that everyone has opinions that, when you hear them, seem perfectly rational, but that actually end up leading you down another horrifically torturous alley of bureaucracy and mystification. You know it's going to happen, of course, but it sucks you in nonetheless. "Why don't you connect from the factory?" asks Alfonso. "Why don't you have them lay the line underground?" says the unknown (and unasked) man at the bar. "Why don't you go to the industrial office in Oviedo and tell them to get all the permissions?" says Fernando, owner of Casa Fernando restaurant. Even I knew enough not to follow that trail, but six days later, it's a pretty short list of accomplishments with which to content myself.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


Yesterday I brought the car (that's what it looks like, there on the left, only ours is charcoal gray and missing a rear window) back to Pedro, because he told me the new window would be in by then. When I got to the shop, he checked, assured me it was there, and sent me off to the cafe next door while they put it on.

It was one of those old-fashioned kinds of bars that used to be everywhere but are becoming harder to find as Spain turns more European: men coming in for beer at 9:30 in the morning, floor covered in napkins and empty sugar packets, a broken foozball table in the corner, hams hanging everywhere. And of course, both the tv and radio were blaring, as were two slot machines. I kind of liked it.

After spending an hour there reading Portrait of a Lady and drinking coffee, I went back to the shop. Pedro told me he had made a mistake: that the window that had come in was not mine. Would I like him to tape up the back with plastic?

On the good side, I picked some of our figs and apples yesterday. They are sidra apples, and hence, according to local wisdom, not good for eating. But I tried one, and thought it delicious. I would have made a pie, if only our oven worked.