Ilivetolearn's Blog

November 30, 2005


Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 12:45 pm

We ended up flying both ways, although the original plan was to train there and fly back. Until they finish work on the high-speed track (which was supposed to be done this year) the train will take four and a half hours, and is only slightly cheaper than the plane; though when you take into account the trip to the airport here (about half an hour), the waiting, the herding to the gate, the bus from the gate to the plane, the waiting, and the trip from the airport to downtown Barcelona, 4-5 hours door-to-door sounds pretty good. It sure is a lot of trouble for an hour in the air.

We stayed in two connected apartments owned by Hostal Avinyo in the Gothic Quarter—lots of space, very clean, kitchens for breakfasts, centrally located, and only the rooms facing the street were noisy. Barcelona is so famous as a party city that the government has recently enacted laws against disorderly behavior and drinking on the street, but we didn’t see any evidence of enforcement.

Since there were nine of us, we did a fair amount of “divide and conquer” for our sightseeing. We went en masse to Park Guell, designed by Gaudi, and marveled at the mosaic benches (the ones at Grant’s Tomb in NYC are but a pale imitation), but all other activities were in smaller groups. Some of us saw the Maritime Museum (which features a full-size Spanish galleon), some spent hours in the Picasso Museum (housed in five lovely 12th-15th-century mansions), some got another Gaudi fix at the Pedrara (an apartment house he designed early in the 20th century), all wandered up and down Las Ramblas (many shopping opportunities, many “living statues”), and no one went to any cathedrals. Not enough time, of course. But I’m not going back until the fast train is running.

November 28, 2005

Turkey Day

Filed under: food/groceries,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 9:19 am

We had Thanksgiving Observed last Wednesday night with a very Spanish dinner hour of 10:30. The grand total was 17…6 of us, the 3 Bucks, 7 friends of Elliot’s from SLU, and one high school senior from Wisconsin doing a year abroad near here—so there were 11 ravenous teenagers homesick for turkey and apple pie. I cooked two turkeys, four pies (two apple, one pumpkin, one pecan), five kilos of mashed potatoes, broccoli, stuffing. It was a challenge finding some of the ingredients but the Taste of America store came through with cranberry sauce, and Crisco for the pie crust. I cooked a pumpkin for the pie and found a recipe that didn’t call for evaporated milk, then found evaporated milk after all. Also found a pecan pie recipe that didn’t call for Karo syrup, since it is basically just sugar syrup and didn’t seem worth buying for one use.

The butcher thought Bill was crazy bringing home two entire turkeys (each about 5.2 kilos) since they only sell parts normally. And the birds were clearly not mass-produced monsters injected with self-basting fats. They were somewhat scrawny and had the remnants of feathers sticking out. But the meat was delicious! Our oven is so small everything had to be roasted/baked sequentially. I even ended up doing only one pie at a time. A lot of work but all worth it. A great feast, and enough leftovers for sandwiches and soup.

November 23, 2005


Filed under: gender,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 1:13 pm

Since Pozuelo is such a new suburb, and so carefully planned, the streets in most of the town are logically laid out and named. Driving around reading street signs is like a Spanish vocabulary lesson: there are clusters of streets named for countries (some of which have smaller streets named for their capitals running perpendicular), and a section named for gems and minerals (Esmeralda, Amatista, Diamante, Rubi, Zafiro, Turquesa), and of course our own part of town with names of planets (we are Urano, parallel to Jupiter and Mercurio) and heavenly bodies. Unfortunately the main thoroughfares are not as regular and tend to change names at random…Avenida de Juan XXIII, for example, turns into Avenida del Generalisimo. How can they have Pope John the 23rd and Franco sharing pavement? Doesn’t seem proper.

This is the 30th anniversary of Franco’s death (Nov. 20) and Juan Carlos’s official succession to the throne (Nov. 22). Each event was marked by ceremony, mostly quite civil, but with some protests and counter-protests happening. There are still supporters of Franco who gathered by the thousands at his tomb Sunday and shouted anti-homosexual and anti-immigrant slogans, but the general population of Spain seems confident that these remnant Fascists will die off and won’t be replaced one-for-one by the young skinheads. And something like 79% of Spaniards approve of the way the King has helped the country transition from dictatorship to constitutional monarchy. Now all they have to do is change the constitution to allow little Princess Leonor (born last month) to be in line for the throne after her father, the Crown Prince.

November 19, 2005

more about traffic

Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 7:26 am

Road rage doesn’t seem to exist here…despite the enormous delays caused by ubiquitous construction projects, I have only encountered polite drivers who let each other make turns in difficult spots. “Alternate merge” is a concept the Spaniards get without being told to do it, which is good because how would you depict that on a sign with just red, blue, and geometric shapes? Even my confusion at intersections where I am faced by a red light, a green light, and a flashing yellow light, all aimed in my direction, has not elicited beeping from any other motorists. Yesterday I missed a yield sign (cleverly hidden behind a crosswalk sign and a large tree branch) and almost collided with a bus-again, no honking, no shouting, and no one flipped me the bird.

The sequence of lights does take some getting used to…it doesn’t go red, green, yellow, red at the busiest intersections. After the red comes a pattern of two yellows alternating, which Bill explained means something like “Proceed at your own risk…of death.” It’s not clear who has the right of way, but everybody proceeds slowly and usually no one gets hurt. We’ve only seen one or two accidents-one scary one involving a teenager on a motorbike who was badly injured (there goes Evan’s hope for motorized transport).

Spain has been known in the recent past for huge numbers of traffic fatalities and they are taking steps to remedy that; lots of traffic-calming devices in heavily-populated areas, strict laws about what to do in case of engine trouble. You are required to carry two day-glo safety vests in your vehicle, and everyone, but everyone, wears them if they are stopped by the side of the road. Many people even keep them draped over the front seats of the car at all times. You also have to have flares and cones, and (here’s where we are in violation) a spare pair of glasses in your car.

November 18, 2005

road signs

Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 9:50 am

Our favorite road sign here in Pozuelo is a triangle warning drivers that there is a “Club de Jubilados” nearby. First of all, I love that they call retired people jubilators. Secondly, the figure of the retiree is one of those stylized folks with no actual hands or feet, with a stooped posture and leaning on a cane. Some talented aspiring graphic artist has made the cane into a scooter with the addition of wheels and a line under the feet, or where the feet should be…and also added some wavy dread-like locks to the old guy’s head. It makes us smile every time we drive by.

Other road signs are more baffling than amusing…what does a blue circle with a red ring around it, bisected by a diagonal red line (sometimes with white arrows pointing right or left) mean? This is not exactly intuitive. Bill found out the hard way that it’s not one-way…it’s no parking. 150 euros later, we are careful to notice which way the arrows are pointing. And if this sign has the word “Grua” somewhere around it, don’t even think of parking there…it’s a tow zone. This simplicity, once we figured it out, is a relief after trying to decipher parking-rules signs in New York City. During one of our many futile trips to the Consulate to attempt visa collection, I actually gave up and left what I think was a legal spot because I couldn’t figure out the signage.

All the signs informing you that you are entering or leaving a Spanish municipality are similarly terse. No “Welcome to Hamilton, home of the 1996 Little League World Champions” for Spaniards…they only get the name of their city or town in black on a white rectangle. And the exit is not the folksy “You are leaving Small Town, Thanks and come back soon!” but rather the same name in the same rectangle, with a huge red slash through it. I have taken to saying, “Lerma is forbidden! You must no longer think of Lerma!” as we drive away from town.

November 14, 2005

Plaza Mayor

Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 10:51 pm

We’ve been enchanted with the very Spanish concept of the Plaza Mayor (main square; for want of better transliteration, platha my-oar) since our first trip here in March. We got to visit Madrid’s Plaza Mayor twice then; once for an outdoor lunch (decidedly mediocre food but great street theater and musicians and general scene) and once completely by accident on Good Friday. On our way to a 9:30 dinner reservation at Los Galayos, near the square, we floundered around trying to find the restaurant and realized that the thousands of people in the square were there for a reason—the annual processions of the statues of the saints organized by the churches of Madrid for Semana Santa. It was an amazing sight, with hooded penitents looking disturbingly like KKK men, people playing ancient instruments, others holding enormous lighted candles (sideways, dripping wax everywhere), rows and rows of women dressed in black with mantillas and rosaries (widows, at least for the evening, mourning Christ). And we were the beneficiaries of commentary provided by our own personal Don Quixote, an intelligent but absolutely insane man who attached himself to us and insistently gave us his take on the whole spectacle. We finally made it to dinner at 11:15.

We will return for the 2006 edition…but in the meantime we are enjoying getting to know the Plazas Mayor of every other city and town we visit. The one in Chinchon is a charming oval (most are rectangular) and is used every October for bullfights, but when we were there it was a flea market. The one in Salamanca is exceptionally beautiful, ringed with busts of famous kings and artists and scientists, including one of Franco that seems permanently spattered with red paint. Segovia’s is pretty, but right now suffers from noisy construction right in the middle. Tordesilla has an appropriately intimate little one. Cuenca unfortunately has allowed its to become a thoroughfare for cars and buses going up and down the hill. But it has escaped the fate of many that are now parking lots. When we walked into Lerma’s and saw row upon row of cars, Margo said, “This is Plaza My-Car!”

a donde fueres haz lo que vieres

Filed under: Spain — ilivetolearn @ 12:34 am

This translates as “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” (Literally, wherever you go, do what you see.) I’ve been learning fine points of Spanish customs/etiquette…often just too late. Last weekend on our outing with our neighbors, the 12 of us seated ourselves in a restaurant for lunch and there were bottles of water and pitchers of wine on the table. I filled my glass with water for the first round, and when someone proposed a toast to the gathering, I raised the glass of water. Oops. Turns out it’s bad luck to toast with water and I should have chugged it and poured wine just for the “Salud.” Apparently diplomatic relations between some Muslim country and France have faltered recently on whether or not there will be wine to toast their friendship.

When you are a guest and your host offers you something to eat or drink, the polite thing is to refuse, not once but twice. On the third offer you may accept. We have been breaking this rule regularly, thinking that it would be churlish to say no to an offer of hosptality. We have also taken at face value others’ refusals…when in fact those guests in our house may have been hungry and thirsty but too polite to say so until the third try.

When you are complimented it is not proper to say just “Thank you.” You have to elaborate. “That’s a nice sweater.” “Thank you…I bought it on sale last weekend.” “Your haircut is very becoming.” “Thank you…I went to the hairdresser you recommended.” This is a challenge for us, of course, since we only have enough Spanish to stammer out “Gracias,” so we will have to practice some stock responses. “Estos harapos?” (“This old rag?”)

I had already noticed that no one, but no one, eats or drinks on the street or in the car. No cardboard or plastic coffee cups. No take-out containers. Most cars here have manual transmission, which makes it a little more difficult to juggle a coffee cup and a phone, and now I am told that it is illegal to use a cell phone while at the wheel, and illegal to smoke while driving! (That law is almost universally ignored.) Of course, it is not illegal or rude to light up in a restaurant, in a meeting, or anywhere else…so far, none of our guests has asked to smoke in the house, but it will happen. I hope they don’t assume that after two refusals, anything goes.

November 10, 2005


Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 12:17 pm

In keeping with the European sense of scale…small apartments, small cars, narrow roads, 250-ml bottles of beer…most people have small dogs. But there are exceptions; the ones that are more watchdog than pet are big, live outside, and spend their days lying unseen between the owner’s front door and the gate to the street, springing into bark mode as you walk by, as if each random pedestrian is a potential breaking-and-entering expert. I was wondering how people fit these beasts into their tiny cars when they travel, until on our last road trip I caught sight of a good number of little crates on wheels–doggie u-hauls. I bet it gets pretty cold for those rolling canines.

It is definitely fall now and we have had the heat on for the last few days. There was frost on the car this morning, and snow on the mountains visible en route to school, but the temperature still reaches at least 65 during the day. A 30-degree range during 24 hours is not unusual at all.

November 9, 2005

olive harvest

Filed under: food/groceries,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 1:39 pm

I forgot to report that as of the first, we have had home-cured olives to eat. The first batch turned out delicious and inspired me to keep going through the labor-intensive process with the next two batches…one is in the salt-soak stage, and one in the vinegar-soak. These are bigger specimens than the early harvest and I’m hoping they won’t be as overwhelmed by the last marination with various herbs. Our tree is really giving out; there are only a handful more, and they involve more climbing than I will let Margo do. Bill is scouting places to buy a bushel of uncured olives, and has scavenged a wooden box from the garbage outside a restaurant (with a bonus of ten or twelve half-dead tomatoes) so we can try the dry salt cure next. It produces those wrinkly pruny things most people hate.

November 8, 2005

we have an injury

Filed under: movies,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 7:42 pm

Another week with a Festa right in the middle of it…these religious holidays come thick and fast in the fall. The kids haven’t had a five-day week since late September. But it is good timing for Evan, who fell during basketball practice yesterday and sprained his ankle, which swelled up horribly and necessitated a trip to Madrid for doctor appointment and X-rays today. Nothing serious, but he is wearing a splint with cold gel inserts, on top of one of those elastic sock things up to his knee. And using crutches. No basketball for a while. Now we will see how good the insurance policy required by ASM really is.

We’re stocking up on movies for his time off his feet…after spending some futile hours trying to figure out which of the local video stores had a more convenient schedule for us (they tend to be open 10 to 1:30, then 4:30 to 8…except Friday it’s til 10, Saturday not open til noon, Sunday only evening hours, and Festa your guess is as good as mine) we discovered that the very closest one has a 24-hour computerized system. We can get movies out, return them, add money to our account, and never set foot in the store at all. I like this…but I try to go at odd times so there are no other customers waiting behind me as I take extra time deciphering the long lists of Spanish titles. I may break down and go into the store occasionally to look at the boxes for visual cues. So far no mistakes.

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