Thursday, January 25, 2007

Nightmare on Gran Via

I think every expat in Spain has a Telefonica story to tell. The futile attempts to get phone service installed, the internet routers that mysteriously stop working, the head-bangingly frustrating efforts to get phone service, once installed, turned off. It's practically a rite of passage.

I've been through that passage--many times. So I knew that my visit to Telefonica headquarters was going to be trying. But I had no idea that it would be quite like this.

We had a problem with our bill. Actually, with both bills--land line and cell. With documentation in hand and an admirably Zen-like attitude, I showed up downtown. I was ushered to a desk staffed by security guards where, as if I've accidentally stepped into a 1950's Guardia Civil station, I have to surrender my passport in exchange for a security tag. The tag must be worn at all times, the guard tells me. I put the plastic card around my neck.

"Do you want to speak about your land line or your cell line?" she asks. I tell her both. "Well you can't do anything about your cellphone here--that's Movistar." (Note: Telefonica and Movistar are the same company). Okay, so where do I go for Movistar? "I'm not sure. Maybe on Capitan Something-Unintelligible." Where is that? "I'm not sure."

I decided to stick to the landline. Another security guard comes over. She will be my permanent escort for the rest of the time I'm in the building, I'm told. We go up to the floor where the single, pinched customer service person has her grim office. I tell the security guard I'm surprised that I need an armed escort to talk to someone about charges on my phone bill. She smiles knowingly.

Finally, I--I mean, we--are ushered into the customer service woman's domain. There is no one else around, but she clearly does not have time for me. As I start to explain the problem she interrupts to tell me there is no solution. Of course. But I've been doing this long enough to know that the first answer is always no. So I press on. She interrupts me again to call a colleague and ask about my problem. Colleague tells her they'll review my bill and get back to me within 14 days. Service person hangs up and begins to usher me out the door. I ask another question. Service person rolls her eyes at me and snaps, "If you're going to have multiple questions, could you please ask them while I have my colleague on the phone.?" I start to ask another. But she glares at me and cuts me off to call her colleague.

Nothing, needless to say, accomplished. But as we close behind us the door of what is quite likely the rudest customer service I've ever encountered, my security escort turns to me with a smile. "Now do you see why we need guards?"

Friday, January 19, 2007


I've written about Madrid Fusion, that 3.5-day extravaganza of culinary innovation and ego here. But there are still a few impressions that didn't make it into print, like Ferran Adrià admitting to me that, all technological doodads aside, "what's better than a fried egg?" Or the liquid nitrogenized dollops of olive oil served as hor d'oevres at dinner that, once put in their mouths, had all the stern ladies at the Real Casino blowing smoke out their noses like dragons. Or the woman who pushed her way toward a plate of ham during the massive tapas lunch served in the exhibition hall saying, "It's the only decent thing to eat in this place." In fact, although the hall was fairly teeming with truffles and chocolates and cheese and a never-ending array of small plates born from a back-stage kitchen by trails of waiters, it was the ham stand that drew the ravenous crowds. Ham and the wine to wash it down with. Viva la España.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Old Blood in the Season of Giving

On the last day of the year, in Villaconejos (‘Villa’=‘small town’; ‘conejos’=‘rabbits’), a village thirty miles southeast of Madrid, a crowd of several hundred gathered at 4 pm in the town square to perform what they considered a long-overdue community service: they were going to teach a neighbor a lesson.

Why? This particular neighbor, known as "El Calvo" ("The Baldman"), had terrorized the locals from the day he moved in seven years ago, carrying a large pistol and knife around as he took whatever he wanted from the town's stores, bars, and restaurants, and drove his cars wherever he pleased (on and off the roads).

Only after a local youth confronted El Calvo, in a bar two days before Christmas as the latter bullied the bar's patrons, did things change. Screeming "No more!" the youth gave El Calvo a beating.

Saturday night, El Calvo returned to the bar with a group of toughs, looking to seek vengeance on his aggressor. Not finding the youth, El Calvo and his men trashed the bar instead.

Word spread, and a group of youths starting making plans to punish El Calvo. The Guardia Civil in neighboring Chinchón were called, and several officers were quickly dispatched to meet the crowd gathering at El Calvo's house.

When the officers arrived, El Calvo confronted them with his pistol blazing. After a long mediation, the Guardia Civil arrested El Calvo, along with four others, and took them to the local jail. They also were able to disperse the crowd. But this story was far from over.

The next morning, fuelled by outrage over ETA's airport attack, the townspeople again gathered, and at four in the afternoon, four hundred of them marched to El Calvo's house. Despite the presence of El Calvo's pregnant wife and elderly in-laws, the mob proceeded to burn El Calvo's house, garage, two cars, motorcycle, and truck, among other things.

As they carried out their retribution, members of the group prevented the local firefighters from intervening, and the four Guardia Civil officers who arrived succeeded only in getting the inhabitants out of the house before being forced to stand nearby, watching helplessly.

The episode is eerily reminiscent of the great Spanish playwright Lope de Vega's 1619 play, "Fuente Ovejuna" ("The Sheep Well"). Based on an actual incident that took place in the town of Fuente Ovejuna, in Castile, in 1476, in which a visiting military commander mistreated villagers who then banded together and killed him. When a magistrate was sent by King Ferdinand II of Aragon to investigate, the townspeople, even under the threat of torture, only responded by saying, "Fuente Ovejuna did it.”

After the violence in Villaconejos, the town's mayor, aptly named Lope, said one of the mob approached him and said, "It was all of us, Mayor. The town did this." Despite a police investigation, the townspeople are keeping silent, offering no names, and when asked about El Calvo's expected revenge, they're saying the same thing: "We'll all respond together."

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Grapes of Luck

Not everyone counts down from ten. Spaniards start the New Year count at twelve, and accompany each number with a grape, swallowed rapidly. This sounds like some Deep Spain, pre-Christian ritual, but in fact, its the 20th century invention of a bunch of grape farmers who found themselves with too much product on their hands. The solution? Convince everyone that shoving twelve pieces of fruit into their mouths in 12 seconds will bring them a year's worth of good luck.

Of course, Spanish grapes tend to be on the large side, and they invariably have seeds, which means that one's good fortune in 2007 could easily be brought to an abrupt end by choking. But here again, some enterprising Spaniard has found a solution: seedless, peeled grapes in a handy little can. Twelve in each, of course, though two cans come to a pack, the better for romance.