Saturday, December 31, 2005

A Modest Proposal

The big political debate in Spain right now (if we leave aside the smoking ban, and the LOE protest, and whether Zapatero is or is not, as his opponent Mariano Rajoy calls him, a "solemn idiot"), is over the Catalan Statute. If passed, the statute will grant significantly more autonomy to the already fairly autonomous region of Catalunya. There are many points of contestation—financing, the judiciary, whether Zapatero or Maragall comes first in official protocol—but the great sticking point seems to be over the word "nation." The Catalans consider themselves to be one; many other Spaniards aren't so sure.

Zapatero has successfully persuaded parliament to agree to discuss the proposal, but it's anyone's guess what will happen next. The Catalan parties are unanimous in their support for the "nation" clause, ZP has insisted that it cannot stand, and the PP is making loud pronouncements about how both the Catalans and the Socialists are trying to destroy Spain.

In the meantime, some opponents of the Statute have mounted a boycott of all Catalan products, which include mineral water, and the white sausage called butifarra, and a bunch of delicious cheeses, but more than anything else, means the sparkling wine called cava . Cava producers are already lamenting the drop in sales.

So choose tonight's champagne wisely. Have I mentioned that Freixenet, a fine, inexpensive cava, is readily available in the United States?

, , ,

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Holy Innocents

Back here in the US, the holiday festivities are winding down as we slouch toward New Years. But back in Spain, things are barely getting started. New Years, after all, is merely the halfway point in a fortnight's worth of celebrations. And today—a Wednesday unremarkable in most parts of the world—is reason for its own brand of rowdiness.

For an outsider, the Spanish Christmas is full of mysteries. That's moss on the cardboard next to the Christmas trees, and it took me many years to figure out why anyone would want moss at Christmas. But of course: the landscapes in the elaborate nativity scenes—called beléns, or Bethlehems, in a charming piece of Spanish shorthand—that go up seemingly everywhere are lined with moss. The really upscale ones have waterwheels too. I know this because all the stands at the Christmas market that sell nativity scene figures have hand-painted signs tacked to the front proclaiming, "We have waterwheels that work."

And I only just learned why next to all those stalls selling miniature shepherds and Baby Jesuses are others—sometimes the same ones--that sell whoopee cushions, and fake bugs, and plastic piles of shit, and strange wooden instruments that look like butter churns but make loud farting noises when played. It's because December 28th—today—is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which for the Spanish is a kind of April Fool's Day when everyone plays pranks on each other. Of course.

Have yet to figure out why everyone goes around in electric-colored fright wigs and cartoon masks, however.


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

And They Polish Their Windows With Balsamic Vinegar

One of the things that Spanish cities do well is clean their streets. Every night whole brigades of men and women dressed in neat green uniforms comb the streets with brooms and hoses. There are also these little washing mobiles that spray water out the sides as they inch down the street. It's quite effective, as one would hope in a country where littering (to say nothing of spitting, dropping burning cigarettes, or sitting on the street drinking) carries no negative value whatsoever.

When I lived in Cordoba many years ago I used to joke that they hosed the streets down with olive oil. No one but me found it funny, admittedly, but I thought it was a fine explanation for why the whole city reeks--in the best possible way--of extra virgin cold pressed. Which is why I found myself chuckling on Monday when I got off the train in Cordoba and was immediately hit with the same green scent.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Eating: La Turuleta

Ever since it opened several months ago, I have avoided La Turuleta. I have done so despite that fact that it is right downstairs, because, well, it is right downstairs. On a street that is positively awash in bars and restaurants—so awash that the tides can be hard to part on certain warm summer nights—the last thing we needed was another one. In fact, there was a minor building-wide rebellion when it became clear that another bar was going in. The president of our comunidad went so far as to file a complaint with city hall, on the reasonable grounds that the space is not zoned for hostelry. Reasonable, but unpersuasive. The bar went in, no doubt illegally, and is now doing a thriving business in tapas.

So in protest, I resisted going there. Until the other day, when it came time for lunch and none of the other neighborhood menus del día seemed very appealing. So much for political commitment (though in my defense I will say that they did a remarkably fine job of soundproofing).

I'm glad I caved, and then caved again. In the two lunches I've had there in as many weeks, I've had a beautiful shellfish soup— bright yellow, slightly viscous, and stocked with squid, shrimp, and mussels; a tasty-if-a-bit-too-soupy rice with fresh artichokes; a classic potaje made with cod and chickpeas; and a very delicious, Asian-y chicken and vegetable stirfry. And a cream cheese brownie for dessert (twice).

LA TURULETA: Almendro, 25. Tel.: 91 364 26 66.

Friday, December 16, 2005

El Caganer

I've come a little late to the whole "War on Christmas" debate, but Bill O'Reilly has reminded me why I choose to live in Spain, even if they can't make a decent doughnut to save their lives. Or bagel, as the case may be.

Let's lay aside the obvious, distressing fact that O'Reilly et al are marshalling the great democratic forces of the boycott not to Christianly protest against, say, the atrocities in Darfur or the high cost of AIDS drugs in Africa, or even, and let's be clear here, consumerism itself. Let's leave aside the whole bullying insistence that "the majority celebrate Christmas so the feelings of a few secular humanists and other heathens don't count." Leave aside as well the attack on freedom of speech. Is it not absurd that the judgement of whether a society is secular or religious comes down to what their mega-stores paint on their windows in December?

Here in Spain, they say "feliz navidad" and "felices fiestas" with equal, well, felicity. In fact, the "fiestas"--that would be "holidays"--is perhaps more popular simply because it is more grammatically correct: what we have here is a series of holidays: not just Christmas, but New Year's and Epiphany as well.

Which is not to say that they do away the religious completely. One of the most popular holiday pastimes in Spain is to visit the nativity scenes that are mounted in most every public square and, yes, shop window. These can be very elaborate affairs, not just Jesus and his folks and the kings and a couple of barnyard animals, but whole armies of peasants drawing water from wells, and children playing, and soldiers advancing, all of them dressed in robes and headscarves.

In Catalunya, there is one figure, however, who does not share the vaguely biblical dress: El Caganer. Also known as: The Shitter. Tucked into a corner of the creche, the Caganer squats with his pants around his ankles, a freshly-laid pile of excrement beneath his bare butt. Theories on the meaning of the Caganer abound: he represents primitive nature in the face of the divine; he’s the embodiment of the value Catalans put on the down-to-earth; he is another example of the important place of shit in Catalan folk culture.

And although most caganers wear traditional Catalan dress, in the past few years, it has become popular to shape them so that they resemble the most significant people of the year—part homage, part mockery. So while last year’s big stars in the caganer line-up were Felipe and Letizia (they married in May 2004), this year it is their newborn, Leonor, who will be taking a crap in crèches throughout Catalonia. Leonor, and George W. Bush. Perhaps the best-known group of caganer artisans use their website to ask clients to nominate the year’s new figures, and this year, President Bush was their choice. I wonder what Bill O'Reilly would have to say about that.

, ,

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Via Publica

It would be nice to think that during all that time in which we heard nothing from Viesgo they were steadily putting up posts and stringing electrical wire. Nice, but utterly unfounded. So when another week had gone by and we still hadn't heard anything, I gave José another call. "Oh yeah," he said, as if my voice was recalled to him from some place deep in his memory. "You need some more permissions."

It seems that the part of the route that we were told was public--and hence incorporated in the one permission we had from the ayuntamiento--is not. Or rather, it is, but there is not very much of it; the public path is only a few feet wide. As José said, "If we put the posts right down the via publica, there won't be a via publica any more." So we need permissions from the neighbors who own the land that runs alongside. All six of them.

But José said he and his partner were working on it. They already had four, and had sent letters to the other two, asking them to sign the form. One might be tempted to ask why Viesgo couldn't have done that from the beginning; why they couldn't have simply sent out forms instead of forcing us to figure out who owned what land and traipse from door to door, pen in hand. One might be tempted to ask, but one wouldn't.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Seeing: Modern Realism

On a walk the other night I stumbled across the Caja Madrid gallery in the Plaza San Martin, with Edward Hopper on the banner. Inside, an exhibition right up my alley: 1920s and 30s realism, with heavy emphasis on carnivals and dancehalls, and a charming farm scene, complete with donkey, by a pre-abstract Joan Miró. I was a bit confused, however, by the absence of the very painting on the banner, the melancholic Hotel Room. Had they taken down the star attraction of their show? Had I missed a room somewhere?

No, they had not and I had not. The exhibit is divided in two, with the really big gun paintings over at the Thyssen-Bornemisza. So Thursday being a holiday and all that, I decided to take in part two. Hotel Room was indeed there, and quite entrancing a painting it is. The longer I looked at it--the harsh light, the two suitcases, the carefulness with which the woman unfolds the paper--the more certain I became that something tragic was going to happen. But what I loved was that no matter how long I looked, I couldn't tell if the tragedy had occurred yet, or if it were still to come.

Away from the Hoppers, I had one of those experiences where I kept finding paintings I liked, and everytime I checked for the artist's name, it was the same one: Felice Casorati. He painted a lot of women, but it was the eggs on a battered black desk that I liked best.

Realismos Modernos is at the Fundacíon Caja Madrid (Plaza San Martin, 1) and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Paseo del Prado, 8) until January 8.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Bridge

No sooner had we written about one obscure holiday, than another is upon us. Make that two: yesterday was Día de la Constitución and tomorrow, in a perfect marriage of Church and State, is Día de la Inmaculada (the Inmaculada in this case refers to Mary--Dec 8 is the day that Pope Pio IX declared that she too was conceived without sin).

The coupling of these two particular holidays might be a bit strange were it not for the puente. A puente (or "bridge") is what happens in Spain when a holiday falls a day away from the weekend--you just elide right over that irksome workday in the middle, and turn a simple day off into a four-day extravaganza. When it came time to schedule a day, 27 years ago, to sign the Spanish constitution, I have no doubt that country's politicos purposefully chose Dec. 6 because it fell two days before Dia de la Inmaculada. Not one: that would have gotten them, at best, one measly extra day off. But by putting the new holiday two days before the old one, they guaranteed themselves at least one puente. And in the best case scenario, two. Indeed, right now we are in the middle of the perfect storm of Spanish puentes: two official holidays that fall, respectively, on a Tuesday and a Thursday, necessarily wiping out Monday and Friday, and, why not, taking Wednesday with them for good measure. In short, a 10-day vacation.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Eating: Le Dragon

Lest anyone think that there are only Asian restaurants in Madrid, let me explain. For awhile now, I've been intrigued by the food blogging extravaganzas that go on over at sites like Is My Blog Burning, so when I read about the latest Dine and Dish I decided to give it a try. This month's theme: Asian Persuasion.

And then, this weekend, a friend reminded me of the mini-Chinatown that lurks, of all places, beneath the Plaza de España (northeast of the Don Quijote statue, down the stairs that lead to the underground parking lot). There's a lot to be written about this phenomenon, but for now, suffice it to say that I've wanted to visit for a while. And this confluence--my desire to try my hand at a food blogging event, my desire to visit Madrid's own Chinatown--took me to the Plaza de España today at lunchtime. Or underneath it, to be exact.

Well, I'm sorry to report that Chinatown might be something of an exaggeration. Chinavillage comes closer. China-convenience-store-on-the-side-of-an-otherwise-abandoned-highway is even more accurate. One travel agency, one grocery store, one place selling Buddhas and mah johng sets, and a single restaurant. A very authentic looking restaurant, but one with only 10 tables. All of which were very, very full.

But I still had my Dine and Dish assignment to fulfill. So I got on the metro, and headed to Le Dragon, which lies physically in the Salamanca neighborhood, and metaphysically at the other end of the Chinese restaurant spectrum from a joint in the Plaza de España parking lot. Very chic decor, like the inside of a laquer box, beautiful hostesses running around in bright red cheonsams, a style of Asian restaurant that the Spanish papers insist on calling "London-esque."

Which as far as I can tell, translates as "expensive." I, however, stuck to the 12-euro menu del dia, which included a plate of quite delicious sauteed vegetables, a credible version of curry shrimp with cilantro, and rice. I could have had dessert too--all around me the well-dressed Spaniards were consuming huge bowls of whipped cream with nuts the way Americans might reach for the fortune cookies; that is, as if whipped cream with nuts was the natural thing to have at the end of a Chinese meal. But I stuck to that other typically Chinese ending: espresso.

Le Dragon, Gil de Santibáñez, 6. Tel. 91 435 66 69/ 88

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Drinking: Via Lactea

I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that I had never been to Vía Láctea until last weekend. After all, it is one of the most famous bars in the city—the epicenter of the movida madrileña, that explosion of music and art and exuberant freedom that took hold of the city's youth following the death of Franco. If you've seen Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education, you've got some idea of what the movida was like. And Vía Láctea was at the heart of it, a cavernous bar with not much in the way of style except 80s rock posters and colored lights.

That, some decent music, and a good feel. Twenty-six years after it opened, Vía Láctea is still going strong. At 1am last Saturday night, the place was packed, with a steady stream coming through the door, and a line outside curling down the block. Most everyone was in their 20s or 30s, but I saw more than a few 40-somethings and, I swear, one small group wo were well into their 50s. Which makes a certain amount of sense, given the age of the place. As one 18-year-old I spoke with put it, "My parents used to come here." Now how many thriving bars can say that?

Vía Láctea: Velarde, 18. Teléfono: 91 446 75 81

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Tomorrow's Forecast: Rain

Months ago, Viesgo assured us that as soon as we deposited an obscene amount of money in their account, they would start work, and that we would have electricity a short 10 to 14 days later. They said the same thing 15 days ago, when we made the deposit. Of course we did not believe them. But still, that tiny flame of hope flickered.

Today I called José, the "capataz"--or guy in charge of this whole project. We had talked to him last week as well, and he had promised to start no later than Monday. But on Thursday, he and his team still hadn't begun. "It's the weather's fault," he said, in that charming-irritating way that Spaniards have of refusing all blame. This is very bad news. "The weather" to which José referred is rain. And let's be clear: Asturias is the Seattle of Spain, the London of Spain. It always rains. "Don't worry, we won't forget you," said José. I was not reassured.