Wednesday, November 29, 2006

File under: Go Figure

The biggest thing on Spanish television these days isn't a sitcom or reality show, and it isn't even in Spanish. It's an ad for BMW cars. Featuring a resurrected, Zen-like Bruce Lee telling an off-screen listener to "Be water," (the clip was taken from an interview that Lee gave to Canadian television in 1971), it has taken the country by storm, prompting a Marca headline after the Barca suffered defeat at the hands of its eternal enemies ("Be Madrid,"), several parodies on a number of television shows, and even a counter ad from Mitsubishi (Who's that Chinese guy?" asks an elderly man).

And lists over a million hits for "Bruce Lee" and "BMW."


Sunday, November 26, 2006


I've said it before, but man, does Madrid change fast. I've been away for a month, and in that time, a new subway entrance has gone up at Corte Ingles, there's a new bar on our street where none had existed before, and just around the corner, the Restaurante Capitan Alatriste has opened, complete with a wall-sized version of The Surrender at Breda, and other 17th-centuryish accoutrements.

What's more, the crowded, noisy, car-jammed stretch that was once Calle Arenal has turned into a crowded, noisy, pedestrian walkway. Admittedly, the change wasn't exactly sudden: there was many months there of jackhammers and dust. So many, in fact, that one began to suspect, as one often does in Madrid, that the obras would never finish. Needless to say, it comes as something of a surprise when they do.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Hints Are Dropping

Thanksgiving has now past, and you know what that means.

As we drove out this morning, fairly early, to walk along the beach, we encountered a jolly figure on our road that reminded us what’s just around the corner.

We’ve written before about the caganer, the Catalan crapper who shows up in nativity scenes this time of year. The caganer is a mischievous reminder that, despite the high serenity of the Virgin Birth, nature has its way.

There, just to our left, one of our neighbors was celebrating the start of Christmas season by staging his own nativity. Squatting, grunting, and grimacing, pants at his ankles, hairy bum in the air, he was—how shall we put this?—dropping his load. Though we were a bit startled, to say the least, our neighbor didn’t seem to mind, or even notice us, as we passed.

And so it was that as we headed out this morning, we realized that around here anyway, it is indeed beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

At least they're consistent, part II

This week, Spain's Health Ministry asked Burger King to suspend a new advertising campaign for its "XXL" hamburgers. According to the ministry, the ads--for burgers that contain a hefty 971 calories--fail to comply with an agreement reached by Spain's food industry to avoid promoting supersized portions (they also offended a lot of Spanish vegetarians, who apparently see the ad above as a kind of hate crime). Burger King is fighting back ("Our customers' tastes come first,"), but with 18.5% of the country's children officially overweight, you have to wonder if this isn't a sign that burger ads may one day go the way of cigarette commercials.

Except in Madrid. The same regional government that banned models from Madrid runways for being too skinny apparently has a problem with efforts to prevent everybody else from being too fat. "The government shouldn't interfere with the tiny, intimate details of our lives," said the vice-president.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Madrid’s Mercado de la Cebada is not a pretty place. I’ve seen photos that show it was once was one of those turn-of-the-century beauties decked out in wrought iron, but somewhere along the way, the graceful old building was torn down to make way for today’s brick and cement bunker. As Spanish markets go, it fulfills its function—good produce, good fish, good meat—but unless you count the nudie calendar hung on the wall across from the chicken and egg guy, it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing of places. And many of the original stalls stand empty, which, coupled with occasional noises from the mayor’s office about “revitalization,” sometimes leads me to suspect that the Cebada is not long for this world.

Which is why I was so pleased to walk in there a few weeks ago and see one of those previously abandoned stands suddenly occupied. TeymiGordy (more on the unfortunate name below) is lined with bright blue canisters, each one—there are over 300—containing a different variety of tea. All the basics are there, though even a simple chamomile comes in several versions—Egyptian, for example. But the most enticing are the blends, like green tea with strawberries and white orange blossoms, or the romantically named “Arab Sighs,” with rose petals, raspberry, hibiscus, cardamom, and cinnamon. There are also flavored sugars (lemon, caramel, three kinds of brown)and a middling collection of tea cookies. Two pots on sternos contain the day’s free samples.

TeymiGordy is run by Laura Miso, whose hair is dyed to match her tea canisters. The shop’s name came from the two things, she says, that comfort her: Tea (that would be the “Té”) and “my dog Gordy,” (that would be the Westie pictured on the sign). She got the idea to open a tea shop because, she says, “I don’t like coffee.” Those are heretical words in this espresso-fueled city, but she figured there had to be others like her. Here’s hoping she’s right.

TéymiGordy is located to the right of the stairs as you enter the Mercado de la Cebada. Tel: 91 344 2038.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006


It’s not that in Spain I think only about taxi drivers. It’s just that they’re so interesting.

I don’t know exactly how it works, but taxistas here reflect something essential, something organic, about Spanish society. Maybe this is true of cabbies everywhere in the world, but I have a hunch that Spain’s drivers reveal an unusual amount and kind of cultural information about the country.

So: late Saturday night I hailed a taxi to take me from my hotel in Valencia, the Astorias Palace, to the airport, for a flight back to Asturias. It was raining, and empty cabs were scarce. But even though I was not the only person waving an arm at the white vehicles as they splashed past, one particular taxi pulled up directly to where I was standing.

I got in, soggy and grateful, and told my driver—a short, bald, man in his sixties, dressed conservatively (though quite typically for someone of his generation)—where I needed to go. He shook his head affirmatively, and we sped off.

Interested in chatting, I began making trivial comments about the unusually rainy weather (Valencia hadn’t seen precipitation in quite a while). But my driver just nodded, wishing, it seemed, to drive in silence.

No problem: I retrieved my cell phone to make some overdue calls.

As soon as I began dialing, however, I realized that even if my driver didn’t want to make small talk with me, he wasn’t seeking quiet. He reached over, pulled a CD from a box in the passenger seat, inserted the disc into the car’s stereo, adjusted the volume, and sat back.

In the two or three seconds before any sound was actually emitted, some part of my mind considered the various types of Spanish music that I might expect to hear.

Imagine my surprise when—


—U2’s upbeat “Vertigo,” from How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, filled the car.

The quality of the stereo was impressive, and the volume was high (my throbbing seat seemed to function as a subwoofer). But my driver never moved his head in rhythm, never mouthed any lyrics, never changed his body language or facial expression in at all. He just drove and listened.

And so did I.

By the time we arrived at the airport, we’d made our way through roughly half the album, and I’d enjoyed a most welcome, if unexpected, aural treat.

In some curious show of respect, we sat at the departures curb until the song we were listening to had ended. The driver then turned off the stereo, took my money, and gave me my change and a receipt.

I stepped out the door and was about to walk away, but I had a question I couldn’t resist. I put my head back into the cab and asked, “So you like U2?”

Without turning around, and with no apparent sense of irony, he said, “It’s my seventeen-year old son’s. He buys a lot of music, and when he’s tired of something, he throws it in the trash. I pull it out and put it in my box, here, and listen to it when I drive.”

More intrigued than ever, I sat back down in the seat. “So you must be familiar with a lot of contemporary music,” I queried.

“Not really,” he answered. “I just hear bits of this and that.”

“Hmmm,” I said. “Very interesting.”

Smiling, I gathered my things, stepped back out of the cab, and began to walk away.

As I did, I heard my driver call out.

“I like Boy better.”

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

All Souls Come Out

Yesterday, while in the U.S. kids took their once-a-year chance to masquerade and solicit candy, in Spain, schools, banks, and businesses shut down so that people could lay fresh floral arrangements at the graves of their loved ones.

In Oviñana, this meant the dumpster beside the town cemetery was suddenly filled-to-overflowing with the phony flowers--burial site adornments the rest of the year--that had to be tossed to make way for the real thing.