Sunday, April 30, 2006

We interrupt this blog...

for a technical note. For some time now, we've been meaning to mention that, um, there are two of us here. But it all seemed far too complicated until a helpful reader mentioned that things were getting a wee bit confusing.
So from now on, we'll use different nicknames to sign our posts: Almendro (him) and Almendra (her). And since you asked, yes, we split our time between Madrid and Asturias

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Viva yo

Spaniards have a talent for groups. They are delightfully social creatures--able to talk to anyone about anything, and never happier than when surrounded by crowds of other Spaniards all jabbering away. They learn this skill at a young age--a British acquaintance of mine describes with mild amusement watching his children's daycare teachers chastise them for spending too much time on their own.

But they are also inveterate rule-breakers. They may enjoy spending time with other people, but Spaniards never think that the those same people's rules apply to them.

I was reminded of it twice on the same day last week. First, I went to the post office to pick up a certified letter. I stood there alone for the first 20 minutes or so--even though the post office was 'open,' it was also 3pm, right in the middle of lunch time--and when the guy finally showed up, he asked for my passport. I didn't have it with me, but offered my driver's license and credit cards as ID. He insisted that I needed my passport. I started to to recite the number, which I'd memorized. One more time, he told me he needed the passport. And yet all the while, he was filling out the form that showed receipt of the letter. "You always need your passport for mail from the municipal government," he said, handing me the letter. "Hasta luego."

A few hours later I was shopping at a department store. I brought a bunch of clothes into the dressing room, but the attendant stopped me, saying "That's too many." I asked how many I was allowed to take in. She started counting and said, again, "That's too many." I made a gesture like I would leave some with her, if she would just tell me how many I could take in. She said, one more time, in case I had missed it, "That's too many." And then she handed me the chit, and ushered me to the dressing room.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Tad Late, the Heat Arrives

Yesterday Nacho, our good-hearted but somewhat-scattered electrician, and his brains-of-the-operation mother, Encarnación, pulled up to the Molino around 9 a.m. and announced they had with them the two heaters we’d ordered (and that Nacho had promised to install) months ago -- during the winter. A great procrastinator myself, and in generally good spirits, I welcomed them in to execute a task they assured me would be finished within a few hours.

Two days (and couple of housecleanings)later, the Molino boasted its first-ever built-in heating system, complete with two two new outlets -- one tucked into the corner of the kitchen on the main floor, the other greeting you at the top of the stairs to the second floor -- and a thermostat on the living room wall. Now if we're cold, we simply reach up, turn a dial, and warm the entire house.

We can only imagine how much we'll enjoy this next winter.

Closet to Hell

This week I began what I thought would be a simple and brief project: paint the closet in the Molino's master bedroom. It seemed a good way to do a test run with the new paint we bought (a color in the "Kenya" family at the store here) while spending relatively little time.

Monday afternoon, with enthusiasm and false hopes, I began scraped the walls, ripped out the old wall hooks, fixtures, etc., spackled and mortared the cracks and holes. At this point things seemed dandy, and it occurred to me that, since I was all set up, it would be logical to paint the inner closet too (in addition to the walk-in area I'd just prepared).

With boldness and a vain sense of heroism, I began by tackling the upper part of the inner closet -- a moldy area that we’ve never used and that has been the ugly repository for only items we neither want nor use. I began to scrape, and the trouble began. This closet sits in the corner of the house and apparently it has, over the years, absorbed a great deal of moisture. Unsurprisingly, everything I touched fell apart, rotten. This didn't make me happy, but I pressed on, figuring I could scrape away the decayed material and get to the bare wall, which would be easy to paint.

But the more I scraped, the further I penetrated a world of mold that appeared to have no end. Soon, the closet area as well as the adjoining bedroom were filled with a storm of pungent, grayish-brown mold dust whose eye swirled around my head. I kept scraping, and it kept getting worse. I feared I’d not stop until I hit the roof.

I finally donned my painting mask, something that I -- now quite lightheaded -- should have done much earlier, and bore down. A couple of miserable hours later, I felt as though I'd been dipped in putrid cocoa powder. (Indeed, in my feeble condition, my mind flashed to a television show I’d been watching, "House," in which a fabulously misanthropic and brilliant diagnostic physician, Gregory House, solves complexly mysterious cases while abusing his underlings. Each episode is, in effect, a new mystery, a physiological crime to be solved. The patients' maladies are bizarre and often harsh, in my mind’s eye I imagined myself as one of those unlucky patients -- the mold dust entering my airwaves, traveling to my lungs, into my blood stream, straight to my brain. I decided to stop watching the show until I'd finished this particular task.)

Soon I had to resign myself to the fact that before painting this part of the closet, I’d need to do a bit of carpentry. Exhausted, angered, and not feeling terribly well, I did my best to remove the piles of detritus from the upper closet, and called it a day.

This story, unfortunately, will be continued....

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Another Saturday, another protest

Actually there were six yesterday, and that's just in Madrid. The biggest was in the Plaza Mayor where thousands (5,000? 12,000? The process of counting demonstration participants is an art in Spain that, despite its clearly stated formulae, produces wildly divergent results) of Guardia Civil called on Zapatero to fulfill his campaign promise and de-militarize their organization.

A lot of ink has been spilled about this country's astonishly rapid social and political changes. Just the other day a friend and I were reminiscing about the fact that when we started coming to Spain in the 80's, the toilet paper had the consistency of crepe paper and was, for reasons I never discovered, usually mauve in color. And of course there are more serious changes as well, the things that long-time visitors say they never thought they'd see: gay marriage, domestic violence courts, trains that run on time, bare midriffs.

Yesterday's protest ranks right up there. Long before Franco came to power, the Guardia Civil, with their signature patent-leather hats, were a feared mechanism of state control; under Franco, they were nothing short of an instrument of state-sponsored terror. For however many thousands of them to be demanding that, effectively, they be stripped of certain kinds of power (admittedly in exchange for others: demilitarization means that they'll be able to form associations and join unions), well, that's an astonishing thing indeed.

Friday, April 21, 2006


...Splendor in the Grass.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Señoras de Almendro

Though in our Madrid apartment we are five stories off the ground, living far above the active life of the streets below (I often think of the apartment as a tree-house), we are but a few meters from our fifth-floor neighbors in the buildings across the street in any direction. Our windows — one in the bedroom, two in the living room, one in the dining area, and one in the kitchen — have afforded a number of interesting visual encounters with people familiar by sight but anonymous in every other way. From the two windows — one in my bedroom, one in the living room — on the west wall of our apartment, I am often looking directly at two elderly women, sisters I have always assumed, who regularly watch what is taking place in the Plaza San Andrés below. Something about their timing (always in the morning), their manner of dress (bathrobes, housecoats), their way of standing (bent forward, arms resting on the window bar), their gaze (left, right, straight down, up into the air), and their facial expressions (frowns of disapproval, mostly, with occasional smiles of recognition or eyes widened in surprise), has made these two neighbors more interesting to me than the others. They served as a barometer of sorts for what was happening in the neighborhood, and from watching them I could tell when there was misbehavior in the plaza, when a construction project was too loud or bothersome, when a wedding at the church (held most Saturday evenings) had let out, or when street musicians were particularly good or bad.

One day over a year ago, I took some pictures of these two women, who almost always appear together. I never thought about photographing them again until a few nights ago when, during the height of Semana Santa, one sister appeared alone, late in the day, all dressed up. At first I didn’t recognize her, and I realized that I had never seen her or her sister in anything but informal morning attire. Given the rarity of such an appearance, I quickly grabbed my camera and took another picture. Holy Week has a remarkable effect on Spaniards of all ages and affiliations; they’re suddenly well-scrubbed, dressed up, and somehow more reverent in their never-ending street parties. From now on I shall think of Semana Santa as the quiet holiday, for the movement and noise below is noticeably more restrained than the hustle and din of virtually all other fiestas (most weekends during the late spring, summer, and early fall).

I’ve always felt that the figure of a Señora on a balcony in Spain is somehow mythical, more than a woman merely standing at a window. They are a town’s observers, a neighborhood’s eyewitnesses. Last week, watching one of my own señoras, I think I began to see a little differently too.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Eating in Madrid: Cañas y Barro

There are a few basic rules for finding a decent paella that, if you are a foreigner, you learn only through harsh experience (I suspect that for many Spaniards, these rules are innate, like their ability to keep all the soccer leagues straight).

Rule #1: No matter what its bearer may call it, nothing that anyone ever brought to a potluck in Boston, or Ann Arbor, or, say, Oberlin, Ohio, is remotely close to real paella.

Rule #2: Never eat paella on a menu del dia--it's been made ahead. Same goes for those massive paellas on display at tourist restaurants along Echegaray and most every paseo maritimo on the Costa del Sol. You only want paellas that are made to order. And for that, you usually need to eat in an arroceria

Rule #3: Purists will tell you that paella should only have rabbit, snails, and those massive beans called garrofa in it. But in truth, most combinations are pretty tasty. Chicken and chorizo; shellfish and chicken; vegetables and squid--they're all good. The only exception to this rule are those vegetarian restaurants where they start getting funky on you with the verduras. Carrots do not belong in a paella. Ditto for broccoli, yellow squash, and tofu.

Rule #4: The best paellas, the ones that will stick with you longest in memory, are cooked over an open fire on a dia de campo with friends.

I'm frequently asked where to get a good paella in Madrid. And, since I assume the asker is willing to ignore rule #4 for the moment, my answer is usually Cañas y Barro. It's a small place, decorated in a romantic style whose excesses border on the ridiculous, but the rices, including the authentic (rabbit, snails, garrafo) paella, are expertly made and thoroughly delicious.

I found it the first time when I was working in the municipal archives at Conde Duque. That day, I was on my own for lunch, and since I am a bigger fan of paella than Geoff is, I decided to take advantage of my solitude for a little rice. It was a risk, since some restaurants require a minimum of 2 people per arroz. And I was the only person in there, which made me a little nervous. But the menu assured me they made rices for one, the waiter was solicitous, and the bright yellow dish of aioli he brought to start things off was reassuringly valenciano. And indeed, the shellfish paella that finally emerged from the kitchen was the best I'd ever tasted. Admittedly, I've never been to Valencia. But trust me, it was good.

For the longest time I thought that Cañas y Barro was my personal discovery, mostly because the place was always empty or near-empty when I was there. I've since been proven wrong by the CNN bureau chief. But he also turned me on to the restaurant's zucchini and bacon appetizer, so I can't hold it against him.

Cañas y Barro, Amaniel 23, Tel. 915 424798

Saturday, April 15, 2006

A Good Birth

Yesterday, Spain rather quietly marked the 75th anniversary of the declaration of the Second Republic. There’s been some controversy about whether and/or how to celebrate this day. Those favoring celebration tend to fall farther left on the political spectrum, are not admirers of Franco and his dictatorship, and are content that the right-leaning Popular Party lost the national elections in 2004. Those who resist or outright oppose any celebration are largely more conservative, have (at least in private) mixed feelings about Franco and his legacy, and are not supporters of current Prime Minister Zapatero, who speaks often of his grandfather, a Republican who was killed by Franco’s Nationalists during the civil war (1936-1939) that followed the collapse of the Republic. In any case, I have spent much of one of my careers—a college professor—studying and writing about things related to the Republic and the civil war, and so yesterday's events interested me. I was traveling from Madrid to Asturias and didn’t get much news, but I did read that the head of the United Left party was attending a Republican flag-raising in Grado, not far from here. But it seems that the Republic’s banner was raised in just one other Spanish town. And Zapatero’s governing Socialist party appears to be making conciliatory gestures towards the PP on legislation that makes this the “Year of Historical Memory.” Editorials have appeared all week, both praising the Republic for its achievements and even pointing to it as the precursor of today’s democratic state, and criticizing the Republic for its many errors while suggesting that those who remember it fondly are given to nostalgic fantasy. How to make peace with the past? That's a never-ending question. All things considered, the Republic's anniversary seemed a bit understated. I'm not particularly sad about this, but I will tell you that the first time I saw a photograph that for me has come to symbolize the birth of the Republic—delirious throngs of people flowing through the Puerta del Sol on April 14th, 1931, as a brazen few hoist the new government’s banner, all enshrouded in an inexplicable mist--I was moved.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Drink From the Cup

It's Wednesday of Semana Santa. In our Madrid neighborhood, people are getting ready for the four days of religious celebration that begin in earnest tomorrow and continue through the weekend. From my fifth floor window, I observe the San Andrés church, lit up by the sun, lying back against an azure sky, ready for the days of worship. I descend to the street and, upon leaving our building, notice that the preparations have begun. During this Holy Week, no one will go thirsty.



A dear friend from college and two of her three adorable children have been visiting, and in all the excitement, I forgot to mention the most important news. I was sitting at the Cafe de las Vistillas two weeks ago, having just dropped off said friend and children for a jetlag-induced nap. I was feeling pretty happy because 1)it was such a beautiful, warm day that even the normally surly waiters at the overpriced Cafe de las Vistillas were in a good mood and 2)although no one official would tell me where they were, I had just managed to track down some of the recently transported undocumented immigrants at a homeless shelter near the Royal Palace (not that it mattered in the end, since most of what we wrote was abandoned in favor of reporting from Mauritania).

So I was sitting there on this beautiful day, looking at the still snow-capped mountains in the distance and drinking my agua con gas, when my phone rang. It was Geoff, and he was giggling. "I just sent you an email," he said. It took me a few seconds before I realized he was calling from the molino. And then I began to giggle too. Because although it took buying a cheap PC and temporarily abandoning our lifelong devotion to Macs, we do indeed, finally, have internet at the mill.

Monday, April 10, 2006

There is No Foot Kissing

That, roughly translated, is the note attached in boldface capital letters to the Good Friday procession schedule issued by the Archdiocese of Madrid: NO HAY BESAPIES. Semana Santa has its serious side (see below), but there are also, at least to this outsider, some thoroughly comic moments. The image of anyone attempting to prevent hordes of se~noras from kissing the feet of a Jesus statue is just one of them.

My first introduction to Semana Santa came, properly, in Andalusia, home to all forms of religious excess. There, I experienced the peculiar shock that Americans feel when they first witness the cofrades in their modified KKK garb. I giggled as the crowds shouted piropos at passing statues of the Virgin: ay, que guapa estas!. And, I have to admit, I felt something strange and mysterious at night, when drums fill the air, the streets glow with candlelight, and a single voice pierced the dark with a saeta.

In Madrid, Semana Santa is somewhat different. A couple of years ago, my parents and I caught one procession in which the cofrades wore not the ordinary robes and pointed hoods, but some kind of 18th-century military garb. It was the strangest thing: there were the drums, the candles, the same ladies in their mantillas, and in the middle, a bunch of guys dressed up like Paul Revere. It lacked, shall we say, something of the spooky mystery you get in a place like Cordoba or Sevilla. But then, I doubt that those cities prohibit foot kissing either.


Sunday, April 09, 2006

Who's Kant?

It’s Semana Santa in Spain, and this year I am struck by the way that Spaniards seem to live closer to the ground, their spirits, minds, and bodies more fluidly part of an overall scheme. Traditionally, that scheme is Catholic. Friday was “Viernes de Dolores” [“Friday of pains”), today is “Domingo de Ramos” (“Sunday of branches," of Palm Sunday). People, mostly men, are carrying large, heavy Virgins through the streets of cities and towns across the country. Many children are still named José María or María Jesús. Rituals of devotion to the body of Christ. On a more mundane level, people here simply like their bodies and their bodily pleasures. Spaniards gather in bodies, they eat and drink to fill their bodies and sate their desires, they dance with a holy (or unholy?) passion, their beaches are filled with topless women (of all ages and appearances). I think that they are just not terribly self-conscious about their bodies. This makes me both more comfortable with my physical self and appearance (I care little about what I wear when I leave the house, especially up here in Asturias) and more aware that I am an outsider, not a Spaniard. The mind/body split? I’m not sure what it means here, or that it means much at all.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Elbow grease and a bright flash

After a couple of 70-hour weeks of painting and cleaning (plus a few furniture acquisitions), we've made habitable--even welcoming--the two bedrooms on the Molino's third floor. This inspires us, since these rooms--damp, dingy, peeling, dirty, and very, very, moldy--were among the spaces we generally avoided during the last year. As may be evident, both rooms have taken on distinct personalities and are currently the quarters of friends visiting from the U.S. The "blue room" faces the stone courtyard, while the "green room" looks over the many things growing behind the Molino. Without a wide-angle lens, I can offer only photographs that present incomplete views of the rooms (though Levon can be seen lying sleepily on the floor to the left in the green room). On the other hand, the flash makes it difficult to detect our limitations as painters.

Weather or not...

Asturias’ weather is mercurial--like a god who seems angry but is actually playful. Sunshine, clouds, wind, and rain all come and go on a moment's notice. The sky looks different every single night. This morning Levon and I ran along San Pedro Beach in the pouring rain. The sky was a swirling gray, the ocean dark green and violent. Just a narrow strip of sand was visible between the grasping waves and the rocky shore. By the time we arrived back at the Molino, drenched, the rain had stopped. Throughout the day, clouds, rain, and glimpses of sun have appeared and fled again. A temperamental world here, but never boring.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Marisol Yagüe became the third Marbella mayor in a row to receive a jail sentence for corruption on Wednesday when police showed up at her home (she had taken time off from work to recover from weekend liposuction) to arrest her. And she wasn’t alone: across town, officials at city hall were told to step away from their keyboards as police evacuated the building to search for evidence. Eventually they arrested an additional 21 people, including the lieutenant mayor and the city’s advisor on urban growth, and froze some 2.4 billion euros in assets. The latest detentions brings the number of Marbella’s top officials investigated to 14 (out of a total of 27).

Unrestrained construction has a history in this Costa del Sol resort town of making politicians unwarrantedly rich. Ever since Jesús Gil, shady real estate magnate and flamboyant owner of the Atlético Madrid football team, became mayor in 1991, developers have operated with impunity, secure in the knowledge that building licenses can be theirs if they’re willing to line a few official pockets. In fact, 30,000 out of Marbella’s 80,000 homes are illegal. And although Yague herself was ordered by the regional government of Andalusia to review the questionable licenses granted by her two predecessors, the mayor— an ardent disciple of Gil—has repeatedly avoided taking any action.

The investigation into city hall’s latest shenanigans began in November 2005, when wiretaps in a money laundering investigation—this one directed against local businessmen and lawyers—produced evidence that implicated the mayor and her cohort. Last week, the regional government of Andalusia stripped the Marbella government of its oversight powers over real estate development, and today, Zapatero's Council of Ministers met to decide whether to simply dissolve the entire municipal government. With local elections just 14 months away, it’s anyone’s guess whether this latest exposure of wrong-doing will be enough to break Marbella's long tradition of corruption. Disgusted citizens have been marching through Marbella to protest their government’s greed. But they did that in 1999, too, and seven years later, graft remains as much a part of the Marbella scene as tummy tucks and year-round tans.

Why am I so interested in this tawdry story? Because in college, I dated Marisol Yagüe's brother. Who knows what riches could have been mine had I stuck with that relationship?