Sunday, January 29, 2006

Let there be light

It's true. As of 5:15pm on Friday, January 27, we have electricity. Photos to follow.

Forgive me if I sound surprised. It's true that we were told, back in early November when we handed over a check for an absurd amount of money to cover the cost of cement poles and wire-hanging, that the process would take "10 days--two weeks max." It's true that as recently as 10 days ago, our own electrician told me that "things would have to get very complicated" for us not to have electricity by Friday. By now, I expect things to get "very complicated." When it comes to things involving installation of any sort in Spain, I am inured to hope.

Of course it didn't help that when I called on Wednesday to ask if they had finished hanging the wires, José told me that, well, they hadn't started until Tuesday, and they should be done Thursday. When I asked why they hadn't started on Monday, as he, and three other people at Viesgo had promised repeatedly, he changed the subject to how I hadn't gotten the right permissions. When I said that first, I had gotten the permissions they said we needed and that in any case the posts had been up since the first week of January, just waiting for the wires, he mumbled something about the weather. And then he changed the subject to how he still needed an order from his office to come do the final inspection and that another company would be in charge of putting in the meter, and who knew how long that would take. When I reported this to Nacho the electrician, he said, "Yes, I told you it was going to be very close to get it done by Friday." I said, "You told me things would have to get very complicated for them not to have it done by Friday." He shrugged.

Around 11, José himself showed up to do the inspection. Around noon, I called Laura at the customer service desk at Viesgo to ask when the guys would come out to do the hookup. Laura told me that she thought the team would be there that afternoon. By this point, I had already decided to head back to Madrid—forecasters were predicting a huge snowstorm overnight that would have the whole northern half of Spain blanketed, and I had to have the car in the capital to pick Geoff and Levon up on Monday. But I didn't want to miss the hook-up guys if they were indeed coming. I asked if she was sure. She said she "thought so." I decided to stay the night, kicking myself the whole time for ignoring instinct and experience.

But at 4:30, there he was: a handsome man in a blue Viesgo suit telling me I would have electricity within half an hour. I toyed with taking some of the space heaters I had bought out of their boxes, then decided to wait, still suspecting that something would go wrong. As the lights came on, Mr. Guapo said, "You never appreciate something so simple as flipping a switch until you don't have it, do you?" Well no, sir, you don't.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

How not to plan your next vacation

FITUR opened in Madrid on Wednesday out at the IFEMA convention center. You could tell it was coming because suddenly, a ring of yellow sand materialized in the middle of the Plaza Mayor, the newborn site —as it is every year—for a performance by the famous dancing horses of Jerez.

Out at the convention center, things are much less predictable. FITUR is the world's second largest travel trade fair, and in the quest to stand out amid the hundreds of other booths that are all grappling for the attention of hordes of travel agents and convention planners, each country or hotel chain or regional tourist board tries to outdo the other. Some wrap recent theater-school graduates in billows of turquoise tulle and have them ripple like a river you might want to row down. Some convince middle-aged Spanish men to dress like the Centurions who one roamed their city's streets. Some force poor natives from foreign countries to do folkloric things in an overheated convention center for hours on end.

Imperative to the task of drawing a tour planner from Lérida or Liverpool to your booth is a small legion of pretty azafatas--some dressed like hot businesswomen, others like hookers at Mardi Gras-- to hand out brochures. But hostesses aside, in the end, it all comes down to swag. Free food, drink, and tchotckes apparently keep the travel industry afloat. In the few hours I was there, I scored half a dozen pens, two pencils, one glass each of sherry, cava, and a very fine Rioja, a poster of Picasso, three lapel buttons, fresh conch, a fan, a bottle of olive oil, and a fez. And I wasn't even trying.

FITUR, which runs through Sunday, is open to the public during the weekend.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Ode to an Immersion Blender

I know that technology is supposed to be America's strong suit (after, oh yes, civil liberties and democratic transparency). But there are some things that Europeans just make better. Simple things, like dustpans with broomstick-long handles and oversink cabinets with built in dish drainers.

And immersion blenders. So neat and trim, so practical: no need to transfer anything, no chance of spraying asparagus soup all over your kitchen just as your guests arrive because you filled the blender too high. The very embodiment of European values, in fact: no gaudy doo-dads, just enough power to get things done without being ostentatious about it. I know that, technically, immersion blenders are available in the US, but honestly, how many people there do you know who have them?

It was a happy day yesterday when I took advantage of the nation-wide rebajas to first finally buy one, and then to make a deliciously smooth and creamy carrot soup with it. Couldn't have been easier. Here's the recipe:

Carrot and Dill Soup (serves 4)

2 Tbsp. butter
1 large onion, sliced thinly
6 carrots, peeled and sliced thinly
1 tsp dried dill
5 cups chicken broth
Chopped fresh dill for garnish

Sauté onion and carrots in the butter with the dried dill until the onions are translucent. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Lower heat, and simmer until carrots are soft, about 40 minutes. Use immersion blender (or if you must, a regular one) to puree until smooth. Serve topped with a good amount of chopped fresh dill.


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Thank you, Benedict Anderson

By the time I got out of graduate school, I was a little tired of the ubiquity of the "imagined communities" rhetoric. Good idea, but damn if it didn't make its way into every dissertation and job talk of the 1990s. Still, I found myself thinking about it again as we near an apparent agreement on the Catalan statute.

Taxes, it should be said, have been a major sticking point--who gets how much of the revenue. But the major hold up throughout the process has been about the word "nation." All along, the Catalans have insisted that Statute define Catalonia as a nation, while the government has insisted that Statute define Catalonia as a place with a national identity. That may not seem like a difference worth holding up a pact that will utterly remake the nature of Spanish government, but trust me. And things got even more punctilious after that. Just days ago the government ceded a bit, and offered the concessionary "Some Catalan citizens feel that Catalonia is a nation"; when that was deemed too patronizing by the outraged Catalan parties, the government took off the "some."

Then, in the face of continued resistence, they revised it again. Now it says that "The Parliament of Catalonia...has defined Catalonia as a nation." Classic trick: say what somebody says it is, rather than what it is. But it seems to be working. The last hold out among the Catalan parties meets with Zapatero today, and I'll lay money that there's an agreement by the end of the day.


Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Electrician's Family

I showed up at the molino this weekend to find Nacho the Electrician hard at work, along with the better part of his family. Actually, with the exception of his mother (who has the body of your average señora but the dyed-red shag of an 80s rocker), the rest of them—sister, grandfather, unknown man who could have been a brother or a guy they met in the bar on the way over—seemed a bit sheepish. Which seemed unnecessary until I realized that rather than working they were there to look around our house. But Nacho's mother was working hard, and we now have 1) a cable that juts out from a hole in the wall, cuts up to the roof, and stretches across the patio; 2) one and a half floor's worth of new outlets (one and a half still to come); and 3) a pretty little stone house, complete with red tile roof, to house the counter, whenever that gets put in. Progress.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Seeing: Madrid

The city of Madrid spends a lot of its culture budget promoting the Festival de Otoño in October, but for some reason, I always find the end of January a lot more interesting. This year, Spain´s most famous ballerina, Tamara Rojo, is dancing El Quijote with the Argentine Julio Bocca at the Teatro Albeniz, while Victor Ullate´s work El Sur--a ballet about domestic abuse with music by possibly the best-known flamenco performers in the world, Enrique and Estrella Morente--premieres at the Teatro Gran Via. Caja Madrid´s five-star flamenco festival begins next week. MadridFusion, which ends today, has all the avant-garde chefs of the world showing off their latest creations (Adrià issued a 23-point manifesto and demonstrated a battery-powered screwdriver that shoots out strands of carmelized sugar). And all the big US Christmas movies--Munich, Brokeback Mountain, Luther (what? You haven't heard of that one? Joseph Fiennes playing the tonsure-headed founder of Protestantism? I can't imagine why)are finally making their way over.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Scent of Return

Not too long ago I mentioned how Córdoba's scent hit me as soon as I got off the train. It used to be that way with Madrid as well: I would get off the bus from the airport at Plaza Colón and lightly swoon as I inhaled the smell I hadn't realized I had forgotton, the smell of Madrid. It wasn't olive oil in this case, more like a mix of coffee and exhaust and fried calamari and that peculiar cleaning fluid that Spaniards use, but it instantly reminded me where I was, and I loved it.

When I got in to town earlier this week after a month away, it wasn't there. Or rather, it probably was but I didn't notice it. I think it must mean that Madrid is becoming home.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Two pieces of interesting news from the weekend:

A general in the Spanish army was placed under house arrest after he warned that if proponents of autonomy went too far with the Catalan Statute, the army would be forced to intervene. And a man in his 60s was killed when his car accidentally hit a gitana girl as she crossed the street, injuring her lightly. Her family, upon witnessing the accident, ran into the street and shot the driver eleven times.

There, in one news cycle, two constant themes of Spanish history and myth: the rebellious military, the violent Gypsies. The last time the army threatened revolt was in 1981, when a band of generals shot up the Congress of Deputies in an attempted coup. At the time, it was terribly frightening: Franco had been in the ground for fewer than 6 years and the prospect of a return to dictatorship or civil war seemed very real. But these days, "ridiculous" seems to be the general opinion of Lieutenant General Mena's threats regarding the Statute.

Not so the public outcry regarding the murder of Gaspar García in Sevilla. The Union Romani and other Gypsy organizations have been inundated with slur-filled emails and threatening phone calls. Some perceptions, it seems, are more resilient, like weeds.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

What the Three Kings Brought

Not electricity, exactly, but the poles on which our electrical wires are strung. It's a start.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Kid, The Fat Guy, and the Objectification of Women

As consolation to all those who lost the El Gordo Christmas lottery, today brings the smaller but still sustantial El Niño. This one's winners are also announced by children in Catholic school uniforms, a fact that is probably not amusing to anyone but me.

But amused I am. Not least because the regular daily lottery is announced on TV every night by five willowly women in high heels and form-fitting clothes whose sole job it is to pick up a ping pong ball, slide it into place, and—with big, suggestive (now you'll have a chance at me) smiles— intone the number written on it. So I can just imagine the girls in the photo above thinking today is the start of a great career.


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Eating in Cordoba: Meson Juan Pena

I traveled to Córdoba the day before I came back to the States, and realized that a lot of things have changed since I lived there a decade ago. They have these nifty bikes, free to use, parked outside the train station, for example (a woman in the tourist office told me that Córdoba has more bike lanes than any European city outside of Holland). El Churrasco has opened a small inn--lovely, if a bit rococo for my tastes. Muslim chic is all the rage, with tea rooms and Arab baths popping up around the Mezquita.

But Juan Peña is blissfully the same. Same bullfighting pictures along one wall, same farm implements along the other. Same braseros underneath the tables, with thick blanket-like cloths to pull over your legs and warm your feet. And the same fantastic food.

I had lived for months in Córdoba before I ever tried Juan Peña, even though it was right across the street from the bar where I had breakfast every day (every day, that is, until the waiter--whom I thought was my friend but who clearly disapproved of my unladylike habit of eating a whole, not half, toast—told me I was "getting a little fat"). In fact, it was my visiting friends David and Elizabeth who convinced me to try the place. They ate there one night and came back raving. "You have to get the fried eggplant and spinach with garbanzos," they told me.

So I did. And in the dozens of times that I've been to Juan Peña since, I've never not had those two things. The spinach is lightly cooked, and spiced with cumin and other vaguely Moroccan flavors. And the eggplant is just plain remarkable. Cut like french fries, it is crisp and salty on the outside, melting and not at all eggplanty on the inside.

That's what I ordered two weeks ago, plus a gambas al ajillo for good measure, in the spirit of all-time favorite tapas eating. "Is that a lot?" I asked the waiter after ordering, remembering his critical brethren across the street. "Yes," he admitted. Then I ordered it all anyway.

Meson Juan Peña
Doctor Fleming, 1.
Tel. 957 20 07 02


Sunday, January 01, 2006

Laws Sure To Be Broken

Spain's smoking ban goes into effect today, and already one guy has found a way around it. More, no doubt, to follow.