Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Marking Time

On Monday I visited the plaza de toros in Alicante, where a crew is shooting part of a film about "Manolete"--perhaps Spain's most iconic torero, who died in 1947, shortly after a bull gored him in the groin on a hot summer afternoon in Linares' plaza de toros.

In the film, Alicante's bullring stands in for Linares' plaza, as the latter has become surrounded by tall, modern buildings that would make it difficult to shoot scenes depicting 1940s' Spain.

Alicante's ring was a study in contrasts, its bleachers draped with advertising banners and political symbols evoking a different era (including national flags bearing the yoke-and-arrows of the Spanish Falange, a group that provided crucial support for Francisco Franco before, during, and after the civil war (1936-1939) that brought the Generalísimo to power), its earthen floor smothered by the film crew's tractors, cranes, and dollies.

When I left the plaza in the evening, I headed directly to the airport, and as I awaited the departure of my flight to Madrid, I looked down at my feet and realized that anyone familiar with the world of bullfighting would, at a glance, know where I had spent my day.

The sand in Spanish bullrings is almost uniquely fine in texture and yellow in color, and my pants and sandals were covered with it.

I bent to brush off my feet, then thought better of it, wondering if Manolete's Spain and mine shared much beyond the sand underfoot.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Historic Preservation

One of the great charms of the molino is, of course, that it was a mill. An actual, functioning mill, complete with a massive, hulking millstone. A massive, hulking millstone in which shards of petrified corn husk--the precious sustenance of some hard-working Asturian peasant, indisputable evidence of some simpler, more bucolic life--can still be found. A massive, hulking millstone right where our kitchen table should go.

We have contemplated getting rid of the millstone ever since we bought the place because 1) it is way too big for the room it is in and 2) it leaves no space for a kitchen table. Yet we have lived with the millstone for all this time because 1) our albaniles assured us that it could not be removed without knocking out an exterior wall and 2) everyone who heard heard that we (okay, one of us) was considering removing the millstone reacted as if we had just casually suggested that the pages of a Gutenberg Bible might make good rolling papers. "Oh, but you can't do that," they would exclaim, aghast, yet condescending at the same time.

Well, we did. And before anyone calls in the goons from Patrimonio nacional, let me emphasize that the millstone has not been destroyed, just moved to the patio where it awaits reassembly.

After last year's summary rejection, Jose Maria has changed his mind. Today he showed up with the same crew as before (Calisto as jovial as ever, Borja having grown his hair so that he now looks vaguely like Fernando Alonso) plus an ill-tempered Eastern European who has apparently taken Borja's formerly abysmal spot on the totem pole. The four of them lifted the grinding stone out with little problem, but things got dicey when it came time to move the 500-kilo basin that holds the stone. They cut it from its cement moorings, and got it on a dolly, only to find that they could not then move the dolly. They tried putting down boards and rolling it out on crosswise logs, but that got them only as far as the front door. Eventually they tied a rope between it and the bumper of Calisto's truck, and with much pushing and pulling, got it across the patio.

Right now, there is a hole where the mill used to be. I like to think of it as the yawning chasm of progress.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Burro

Most days, year round, as we come and go from the Molino, we pass by this friendly fellow, whom we refer to simply as “the burro.” His age is unknown, as is his vocation. Is he retired from pulling carts, literally put out to pasture? Or is he defective or lame in some way, unable to perform normal burro tasks? The burro seldom moves, mostly stands, occasionally lies down. Surrounded by flies, munching grass, enduring whatever the skies pour down on him, he is a notably solitary creature. Personifying him as we do, we fear he is lonely, tired, uncomfortable. But we hope we are wrong and that, in the way of burros, he is content.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Spadrille Eseason

It's espadrille season again (or as a sign I passed today, clearing shooting—if perhaps not very effectively—for the English-speaking market says: "Time for Spadrilles from Spain." Not far from our apartment, the crowds are again gathering around what I think must be Madrid's most popular footwear store, Casa Hernanz. I wrote about the shop about a year ago, but what were in my opinion the best parts got cut out. So I thought I'd print the original here:

Around the first of May last year, long lines began forming outside a little shop just off Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. I had walked past it for months but never really noticed the place before: a non-descript awning reading “Casa Hernanz” and a pair of smudged display windows were the only signs of commerce. But now, suddenly, an ever-present trail of people led out from the door. Morning and night, every day but Sunday, lines snaked around the corner. What were they after? Was this a secret outlet for U2 tickets? Was someone handing out free hams?

Casa Hernanz, it turns out, makes espadrilles. A thousand stores in the city sell these homely, rope-soled shoes, but there is only one Casa Hernanz, where the long wooden counter dates to the nineteenth century and the shoes are made by hand. Come summer—a season which, according to local fashion norms, calls for rope-soled footwear—it is the place for madrileños to buy their authentic espadrilles.

The Hernanz family has been in business for five generations. Today, brothers Jesus and Antonio still make the basic kind of espadrille—two pieces of sturdy cotton sewn to a flat hemp sole—by hand, although they have improved on the original model by gluing a piece of rubber to the sole in order to make the shoe more durable. They also make truly traditional pairs—Jesus calls them “artisanal” –whose soles are unadorned and which are sewn with hemp instead of cotton.

Lightweight and inexpensive (at Casa Hernanz, a basic pair costs about $5.70, and the artisanal $19.50), espadrilles used to be footwear for peasants and laborers, but these days, they are more likely to be worn at home as a kind of warm-weather slipper. They’re not confined to indoors, however. “They’re very popular among young people who wear them to nightclubs,” says Jesus. “And you see them more and more on the street. They’re much better than those horrible plastic things.”

Even the humble espadrille, then, is subject to the whims of fashion. These days the Hernanzes also sell factory-made espadrilles in a variety of styles: some, called “valencianas,” tie around the ankle, others have wedge heels and pointed toes. “When I was young,” says Jesus, “there were only three models and maybe five colors available. But today they come in suede, silk, leather and you can get them to look like any other shoe.” The Hernanzes will even custom-make espadrilles in a fabric of the client’s choice.

But it is the basic espadrille for which those lines of people wait. Once inside the store, they line up at a counter squeezed between bolts of cloth. They state a size and a color, and Jesus or Antonio searches the floor to ceiling cases behind, where the sizes are handwritten directly on the shelves, for the proper pair. Only first-timers—foreigners, mostly—retreat to the small bench tucked near the entryway to try on the shoes. For everyone else, there is no need: this is an annual purchase, like suntan lotion or (heaven forbid) flip-flops.

Casa Hernanz, located at Calle Toledo, 18, is open Monday-Friday from 9am-1:30 pm and 4:30-7:30pm, Saturdays from 9am-1:30pm. Tel: 91 366 5450

Monday, May 15, 2006

And those Hubbel dolls will pay for your kid's college education

Last week, 350,000 Spaniards learned they may have lost their life savings when it came to light that two companies that were supposed to be investing their money in valuable postal stamps were actually operating big 'ol pyramid schemes.

Here's what we have to say about it.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


Spent one evening last week at castellers practice in Barcelona, and decided on the spot that of all the symbols of Catalan identity (the sardana, the striped flag, the Barça), those precarious towers of men are by far my favorite.

The first thing I realized upon entering the gym-like (polished cement floor, bleachers, smell of sweaty socks) space, is that they're not all men. Women, it turns out, make for perfect upper tiers. Children are on top, and they scramble up the adults like monkeys.

I learned a lot of things. That a bandana tied around the waist, for example, makes a good foothold. That the music that accompanies any tower-building display has signals in it that tell the guys on the bottom when the kid on top is ready to come down. That teams of castellers do not compete against other teams, but that the local papers rank them anyway. And that some people think castellers got their start in the Middle Ages, as a means of seeing what was going down on the other side of the castle walls. But that, says Toni, head of the Barcelona castellers, is the romantic version.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Viva el

Taxi drivers the world over are a curious group, and Spanish cabbies are no exception. I learned many years ago that most taxistas are more than happy to engage you on virtually any topic, and generally they are friendly, even if they disagree with you.

One of the first drivers I met here, in fact, became a devoted friend despite our differing political views when, after he told me that he played on a local baseball team (not a common sport in Spain, and one with little proper equipment), I had my soon-to-visit dad bring him a Louisville Slugger -- he nearly wept with joy.

Several years later I discovered that I could charm most taxistas if I simply mentioned how well one could eat in Spain. No driver has ever challenged this, and I recall leaving one literally gurgling, Pavlov-style, in his own saliva, as I mentioned, one by one, a few of the cheeses, hams, and wines to be enjoyed in this country.

Riding from the airport to my apartment in Madrid the other night, however, I encountered a taxi driver who genuinely confounded me. Bald, elderly, and seemingly mild-mannered, he was silent during most of the ride.

But when we hit a traffic jam entering the Plaza Santa Ana, things began to go awry. We were stuck for only fifteen minutes or so, consigned to observing the tides of chatting Spaniards that passed by on their evening walks, yet this incident somehow ignited my driver, who, without warning, exploded into a diatribe against "the masses," the media, and the mindlessness of contemporary Spaniards that went uninterrupted (it was uninterruptable, really) for the duration of our journey.

I was at first merely surprised by the outburst. Soon, however, I was flabbergasted, for the longer he held forth, the more complex and theoretically formidable became his rant. As he backed his claims by carefully quoting Marx, Hegel, Adorno (above), and an array of other political philosophers, I sunk lower and lower -- in my seat, and in amazement.

By the time we reached my apartment, it was all I could do to timidly offer him a handful of Euros and slink quietly from the cab. Hours later, I was still in shock -- NOT that a taxi driver would sound off, but that he could do it so eruditely as to plunge me into the kind of intellectual submission I haven't felt since graduate school.