Thursday, August 31, 2006

A New Face

Even though we enjoy mild weather year-round at the Molino—a pleasure shared by anyone lucky enough to live with ocean ahead and mountains behind—the earth’s cycles and seasons nonetheless seem more obvious to me here in Asturias than anywhere else I’ve lived.

It may have something to do with our proximity to (nay, our embeddedness in) raw nature; as I come and go each morning and evening, my surroundings have a noticeably different look than the day before.

As spring’s robust growth wanes with summer’s passing, grazing animals are now omnipresent, gobbling up all that’s green. I pass sheep, goats, mules, and horses as often as I encounter the tourists for whom these creatures are a curiosity.

This past week, the cows in the pasture just down our road were joined by a fresh face. Though it sticks close to its mother, especially in the early morning when suckling at her udder, the calf is a bit less timid and wobbly with each passing day.

Next year at this time, I figure it’ll be just another one of the heard. Posted by Picasa

The Eternal Return

You can tell that vacation is over, of course. There's the nightly reports on the numbers killed in traffic accidents during "Operacion Retorno," for one, and the shopowners furiously scrubbing their awnings after the accumulations of a month without window washings or sidewalk bleachings. The train I took back to Madrid at the start of this week was packed with people and their suitcases--all filled with those peculiar outfits that Spaniards wear only while on vacation.

Still, I hadn't expected quite the welcome I received when I climbed into a cab at the train station late Monday night. "You're back!," the driver exclaimed, as if he had missed me. And then again as we pulled up to Gran Via: "You're back in Madrid," he said, sweeping his arm as if he were pulling back a curtain on the lights and buildings. And finally, as we pulled into the bustling Plaza Santa Ana, filled with people chatting and drinking and eating outdoors, "You see what you've been missing? That's good ambience."

I had to agree.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Dog Days

With the San Pedro beach technically off-limits to Levon because of the vacationing horde of humanity, Levon has channeled his energies in other directions.
As the self-appointed guardian of the Molino, he considers it his duty as well to oversee the renovation of the Cabaña.
It’s no easy job keeping the workers devoted to their tasks, inspecting all incoming equipment, and even leading the group in a bit of recreational activity.
His afternoon siestas and evening slumbers are thus especially well deserved and merit an extra measure of privacy.
Praised be the virtues of responsibility and leadership. Posted by Picasa

Monday, August 28, 2006

Under Construction – I


The tearing down, ripping up, digging, hammering, drilling, piling, and all the rest have begun.

Starting last week, our albañil or contractor, José María, along with his merry partner, Calixto, and surly Bulgarian underlings, Florian and his still-unnamed partner, began the renovation of the Cabaña (the former stable by the Molino) that we’ve been planning, saving for, and dreading for over a year.

The place has been atop a pool of sitting water for a long time, and anything (or anyone, I suppose) maintaining residence there for a length of time begins to grow mold [see earlier ‘Shrooms’ blog post].

The details of exactly what our loyal crew is doing remain to come, but in this first installment you can see the dramatic effect that the work is already having; our once-spacious patio has quickly been transformed into the dumping ground for everything being expelled from the Cabaña.

We’ve been assured this project will be done in two months’ time. For now, we’ll remain optimistic. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Back to the Barricades

With relief I realized that I hadn’t been thrown back in time.

One morning early this week, as I looked out over the Plaza del Humilledero from our Madrid piso’ bedroom window, I was mildly startled: a hastily erected barricade covered part of an apartment building across the way — patrolled by what appeared to be one of Franco’s Nationalist soldiers.
Seeking enlightenment, I hastily dressed and descended to the street. Behind the news kiosk where I purchased a copy of El País, the Calle San Francisco, a busy thoroughfare one usually must cross with caution, seemed eerily desolate. Peering down the hill, I discovered why: the police had cordoned off the street and were attempting to manage a rather large gathering of onlookers.
Not one to avoid a mysterious episode of such public interest, I tucked my newspaper under my arm and made my way towards the crowd. There, at the corner of the plaza, beneath Spain’s national colors as well as the Falange’s yoke and arrows, a squadron of red-bereted soldiers had assembled.
I noticed a tangle of cables running around my feet, then saw the cameras, light stands, and sound equipment. Opening my paper, I saw the headline: “Nationalist troops enter Madrid again for the production of ‘The Thirteen Roses.’”
It seems my neighborhood, La Latina, was being dressed up to look 70 years younger for Emilio Martínez-Lázaro’s film about 13 girls executed by Franco in August of 1939—apparently with no real evidence—for their political ideas and alleged role in the assassination of a military officer.
I stuck around for a few minutes but didn’t see any shooting—of film or innocent girls—so I headed back up the street, leaving unfinished another episode from the Spanish Civil War.

ALMENDRO Posted by Picasa

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Yes, Manolete, There is a God

"It's going to be a 24-7, three-dimensional experience," said Trevor Horwell, chief hotels officer for Hard Rock International. "You're going to have moods happening within the rooms, vibes going on within the restaurant and another vibe in the bar."

Vibes within vibes. Just the thing for a hotel that used to house bullfighters like Manolete and their retinues before and after corridas at Las Ventas--a sixth-floor suite functioned as the dressing room where they would don their trajes de luces. Just what the Plaza de Santa Ana, one of the most delightful squares in Old Madrid, needed. The corporate lackies at Hard Rock International tried to pass off their transformation of the once-famous Reina Victoria Hotel as sophisticated. I guess that someone realized that perhaps mirrors etched with David Bowie lyrics and pillowcases decorated with Hendrix-style guitars fell a little short of hip.

But happy day, Hard Rock Hotel Madrid is not to be. The hotel's owner, the Tryp corporation, backed out of the partnership earlier this month. The reason, they said, was because the Hard Rock brand was about to be sold to another company. But I like this quote from Tryp's Dommunications Director. "No one really understood what being a Hard Rock Hotel meant." Least of all Manolete. Posted by Picasa

Monday, August 21, 2006

Curioser and Curioser

The fires that have consumed large swaths of Galicia were put out last week, but the controversy over who started them—and why—blazes on. At first it was the odd woman found in the woods, matchbook in hand, then the town drunk, then a few out-of-work firefighters who were arrested. Now, there are more than 30 people behind bars—ages 17-70—but no one seems any closer to an answer.

Which hasn’t kept anyone from voicing suspicions. In addition to the reasons we discuss here, a lot of academic-types are floating the idea that the fires represent a form of social protest, with modernization (whatever that means) as the likely culprit. The 20,000 people who showed up in Santiago yesterday to protest against impunity for “incendiary terrorists” (and broke out their old “Nunca Mais” t-shirts for the occasion) suspect something else is up: a vast conspiracy of greedy developers eager for the land.

And then there are those who argue that there isn’t anything new going on here at all, just regular Gallegans solving their land claims and petty jealousies and village outrages the way they always have. Very Fuenteovejuna-esque. As one anonymous Guardia Civil told El Pais last week. “Galicia is a culture of fire.”

Friday, August 18, 2006

What Could Have Been

Like nearly every expat looking for change, we briefly toyed with the idea of opening an inn. Back before we bought the molino, we came very close to buying the Casona del Tilo, a big old Asturian farmhouse not far from Villaviciosa that two Spaniards had turned into a bed and breakfast.

We spent one night at the Casona, as sort of a trial run. The next morning, on our way out, we visited El Malain, a self-serve berry farm nearby where I eventually made myself sick from eating too many raspberries. The whole time we were there picking fruit, I fantasized about inn-keeping life, fantasies that mostly revolved around collecting fresh eggs daily from the chicken coop out back and making jam for our guests' breakfasts from the blackberries we could get at El Malain.

Eventually we remembered that innkeeping also involved a lot of dirty sheets and few days off, and that, more to the point, the Casona's price tag was several hundred thousand euros to the north of what we could afford. But I still have those homesteading impulses, which is why we spent the morning earlier this week back at El Malain filling far more boxes with berries than we could eat. Or at least with more than we could eat before mold overtook them--another lesson in keeping one's fantasies in proportion to one's reality.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Saturday we drove to San Martín de Luiña for its mercado vaqueiro, where each year the townspeople evoke their agricultural past in clothing and cuisine. We encountered a sly priest, who never strayed far from the stand selling home-brewed spirits, a couple of hapless guardia civil, and some roving minstrels. All were jolly except for a solitary drummer, who--no matter where we found him--never lost his scowl.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Invasion of the Blobs

It is no secret that Spain witnesses a mass exodus (or 'Operacion Salida', as the traffic cops call it) every August as most of the population leaves one place for another. Up in Asturias, we've watched with amazement as lines form at our tiny grocery store, and campers fill the parking lots. But of course most Spaniards head to the Mediterranean coast, the better to bake themselves on a beach during the day, and spend their nights drinking in tacky bars by night. Ah, vacation.

There is not much that could tempt us to visit Benidorm or its ilk in August. Between the traffic, the heat, and the hordes of British and German tourists toasting to a bright lobster red on the sand, I, for one, would just as soon forgo the vacation all together. And now, in case we needed it, we have one more reason to avoid the lemming-like trek to the sea.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

New Shrooms

Asturias being an especially fertile place, things grow well here. Nonetheless, I was somewhat taken aback by the pair of mushrooms sprouting from the stone floor of the Cabaña (formerly the stable).

I suppose it's only fitting that this week we finally begin our renovation of the building, a thorough makeover that will include replacing the roof, rebuilding the rear wall, and laying down a new floor--beneath which will exist a drainage system to prevent moisture from settling.

The Cabaña's floors have been sweating since we purchased the property, making it largely uninhabitable as a guesthouse. We hope that in two months' time we'll be telling a different story.

Monday, August 07, 2006


Saturday morning I arose quite (in-the-dark) early so I could squeeze in a run with Levon on the San Pedro beach before the hordes of August vacationers descended (the arrival of this summer swarm of humanity has occasioned the appearance at San Pedro of several new "PERROS PROHIBIDOS"--"DOGS PROHIBITED"--signs, so these days I have to get in and out before anyone's the wiser).

As we drove up the steep incline from the Molino, and then sped along the road that winds through the forest and fields before reaching Oviñana, the nearby town, my scheme was thwarted--temporarily, at least.

Since taking over the Molino nearly two years ago, various locals had spoken of a jabalí, or wild boar, that stalked the woods surrounding our place in the nocturnal hours. We had never seen this creature, however, and so had thought little of the rumors. Today that changed.

Smugly anticipating the empty beach ahead, I was stopped short as the car's headlights caught not one, not two, not three, but four jabalí, walking leisurely in a pack along the road ahead.

The sight alone startled me and got Levon, who was sprawled sleepily across the back seat, up on all fours, hackles raised. But I was further astonished when the group turned and began--fearlessly, almost curiously--to approach the car.

As the jabalí surrounded us, I had visions of an ugly, sensational, and most unexpected demise. My instinct was to gun the engine and get past these brutes, but I didn't really want to run one over (both for fear of raising the ire of the others, and because I was technically outside the limits of the nearby hunting zone and would have no justification for my actions later, should I need it).

For a very long three minutes, I sat still, mostly listening as the beasts brushed along the front, sides, and back of the car, only occasionally glimpsing their raised dorsal bristles through the windows.

Finally, they reappeared as a group a few feet in front of the car and, as if following a practiced routine, turned as one and trotted off the road through a gap in the brush to the left.

After a brief pause, during which I thought with regret how I had nearly brought my camera to get a shot of the sun's first appearance at the beach, I put the car in gear, and we proceeded, still in darkness, to San Pedro.

Friday, August 04, 2006


For years, it seemed, Madrid's street performers were confined to your run-of-the-mill accordionists and wistful travelling Germans strumming out slightly off-key Beatles songs. But now, every summer seems to bring a new addition. First it was the Thai massage people, who would congregate at the Plazas del Oriente and Mayor and corral weary tourists into sitting on a stool and getting their muscles rubbed. (You may not think of the massage as performance, but believe me, the sight of an overweight, sunburned, somewhat embarrassed American having her limbs pulled this way and that by a wiry Asian man is nothing if not a spectacle.)

Then came the living statutes. On this front, Madrid continues to lag far, far behind Barcelona, where the rivalry among performers who stand around in outrageous costumes (my favorite: a talking head nestled in a big pan of paella) is fierce. Not only are there fewer in Madrid, but they tend not to do much.

This summer's addition to the scene appears to be guys playing water glasses. In one afternoon I spotted two of them, each dressed in a white shirt and tie (because, after all, water-glass-playing is a formal business), each rubbing his finger around the rims of water glasses until they released the dulcet strains of, why yes, Hey Jude.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

More Adventures in Spanish Medicine

I went to the doctor's last week and was directed down the hall to the waiting room. When I walked in, there were about six or seven people already sitting in the small room, male and female, most of them older. As I sat down, I felt a little uncomfortable, as if they were all looking at me expectantly. I couldn't figure out why until the next patient walked in. "Buenos dias," he said, as he took a chair. "Buenos dias," they all replied in unison. Same chorus with the next patient, and the next. Apparently I am the only one who doesn't know waiting room etiquette.

After I had to get in a taxi to go for a blood test (these are almost always done in separate labs, far from your doctor's office). "You haven't eaten anything, right?" asked the technician who took my blood. When I told her that no, I hadn't, she handed me a voucher for breakfast at the corner bar. Because no one should suffer the hardship of going more than a few hours without food in Spain.