Ilivetolearn's Blog

March 14, 2009

happy pi(e) day

Filed under: food/groceries,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 2:49 pm

When we lived in Madrid, Evan’s math teacher announced that March 14th was Pie Day (3.14…pi…get it?) and Evan prevailed upon me to make an apple pie for him to take to school. So I did. This year I read in the NY Times that January 23rd is National Pie Day, decreed so by (who else?) the American Pie Council. They clearly didn’t consult mathematicians when choosing the date in 1986. Maybe they picked 1.23 to illustrate the saying “easy as pie.” Their main event, though, the Great American Pie Festival, including the National Pie Championships (yes, a bake-off) takes place in late April in the aptly named Celebration, Florida. If past winning entries are any indication, there will be recipes to avoid (Peanut Butter-n-Strawberry Explosion Pie) as well as a few to try.

Today I’m on pie-day hiatus. The girls are on spring vacation, the boys are out of the country, and no hungry math teachers have wheedled me into baking.

June 20, 2007

anatomy is/is not destiny

Filed under: gender,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 6:44 pm

In general, women dress like women and men dress like men here…the androgynous look is not in. Walking with family members in the States, I used to play the “Quick—Male or Female?” game on city streets when we were approached by pedestrians with body-concealing clothing, ambiguous hairstyles, and random piercings.  Here, other than certain fashions worn by both sexes (espadrilles, pants that stop mid-calf), and certain hairstyles not seen in the US since the 80’s (mullets, for God’s sake), there’s no confusion.

I’ve certainly never seen a form in Spain that has three choices for gender (“male,” “female,” “undecided,”) as does the Bennington College application. The Sarah Lawrence version is: “I identify as a ___man ___woman.” As of this spring, Spaniards who were born as one but identify as the other can change their gender designation on their birth certificates and DNI’s, even before they have had surgery to reassign. They also have the right to compete in beauty contests—transsexual men-to-women for Miss Spain, and vice versa. This happened after a newly-crowned Miss Cantabria was briefly uncrowned when it came out that she had a son–and while the pageant organizers were changing the rules to admit mothers (fathers already were eligible to be Mr. Spain) they also said yes to transsexuals. “Of course,” said one official, “their morphology must match their civic status.”

So far, the only confusion among our many visitors has been with the labels on the bathrooms. “Am I an S or a C?” said one niece. Señoras y caballeros, the local equivalent of ladies and gentlemen, is more common than mujeres y hombres on restroom doors, but the most frequent signs are graphics. And since the females sport those obvious triangular skirts, we never have to play “Quick—Male or Female?” when facing lavatory decisions.

June 18, 2007

a tribute to Shel Silverstein

Filed under: lyrics,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 6:30 pm

Evan is back in Madrid, hanging out with ASM friends from junior year and frequenting the Irish bars that abound in the city. He did the same in March over his spring break, often humming or singing “The Unicorn Song” the day after an evening in a pub. This is a famous Irish Rovers song and seems to be the soundtrack for a lot of Guinness drinking, but it actually has nothing to do with Ireland. In fact, it was written by Shel Silverstein, which we discovered the same Wednesday (library day) Margo brought home Where the Sidewalk Ends and spent the week reading us his poetry.

By pure coincidence, the old Judy Collins song “Hey Nelly Nelly” was running through my head, minus a few verses (I must be getting old) and upon looking them up on the Internet, I found this song too was written by Shel Silverstein! AND “A Boy Named Sue,” a Grammy winner (in the Johnny Cash rendition) our Yale classmate used to sing along with, substituting his name (Gail) for Sue in each verse. And “Sylvia’s Mother,” and “Cover of the Rolling Stone,” and so many more.  He may be more famous as a children’s author, but the man was brilliant with tunes and lyrics. It’s a pity he’s not alive to help out the Spanish government now, since they have just announced an initiative to put words to Spain’s anthem, the Marcha Real, by the end of the summer. (see June 15, 2006 entry)

If I had been on the ball, I would have recommended that Margo report on Shel Silverstein to her music class when they were studying composers, instead of Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman, brothers who scored Disney’s Jungle Book and Mary Poppins but also share credit for the world’s most annoying song: “It’s a Small World After All.”

June 16, 2007

fingers and toes

Filed under: Spain — ilivetolearn @ 5:49 am

I’m still watching ¿Quién quiere ser Millonario? every chance I get and learning phrases like en el ajo. Recently the contestant was asked which body part Samantha wiggled in the old TV sitcom Bewitched. (Her nose, of course.) One of the wrong answers was el dedo corazon (literally, finger of the heart; this explains why in much religious art the saints have that one extended towards their chests), which we know as the middle finger. Ever since that show, the girls have delighted in flipping the bird to one another and saying, “I love you!”

The ring finger is called likewise in Spanish (dedo anular) though Spaniards wear wedding rings on the right hand, not the left.
The index is indice, thumb is pulgar (though I prefer the alternative dedo gordo, fat finger) and pinky is dedo meñique. Our word pinky apparently comes straight from Dutch for “little finger.”

Dedos are toes, too, and mine have fully recovered from their Camino trauma. The right big toenail fell off–left about to follow suit–but at least I took care of the infection in a timely fashion. One of the NATO wives in the ASM community, after running a marathon and losing a toenail, ignored her symptoms, had more and more pain, couldn’t put any weight on the foot, and ended up at the ER on a Sunday morning. If she had only known all she had to do was go to a pharmacy for diagnosis and treatment! We call this, in Julie Winn’s family parlance, “paying the stupid tax.”

June 15, 2007

fruity taxonomy/nomenclature

Filed under: food/groceries,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 9:56 pm

At our local produce market in Pozuelo, there have been fabulous strawberries from Valencia for over a month. (I’m actually in Mattituck, where the 3-day Strawberry Festival begins today). Much as I love the fresas in Spain, I really miss the huge variety of berries in the US. There are Spanish blackberries and raspberries—moras and frambuesas, respectively—but they are hard to find. Blueberries and cranberries don’t exist, and while shopping for juice and jam we’ve noticed that the word arándano serves for both fruits, as well as for huckleberry, bilberry, whortleberry, and a host of others. It seems to be best translated as “miscellaneous dark-colored berry not native to Spain.”

The mulberries are messing up the sidewalks once more, and Margo has harvested (and eaten) all that ripened on the tree in the schoolyard. In the meantime, her classmates were stripping off the leaves to feed the fourth grade’s collection of silkworms. When I heard these mulberry munchers were available for adoption—all a willing mom had to do was send a shoebox for the worm and a baggie for the leaves—I successfully delayed finding the appropriate container until they were all gone.

And how did the mulberry come to be called mora del moro—Moorish blackberry? I’m sure there’s some connection to the Latin name for silkworms–Bombyx mori. And currants are pasas de Corinto—raisins of Corinth. Do they have classical origins? Is it a geographical term? Architectural? I would really have to be en el ajo—literally “in the garlic”, figuratively “in the know”—to have all the answers.

June 14, 2007

around and around we go

Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 8:38 pm

We lived in New Jersey for 16 years, during which the Department of Transportation did its best to remove every traffic circle in the state. While I sat on a committee studying congestion on Route 31, out-of-state consultants made the mistake of designing a solution that incorporated rotaries, apparently unaware of the DOT’s campaign to stamp them out. I agree that they were a disaster, but only because in truly contrarian fashion NJ did not grant right of way to motorists in the circle—they gave it to drivers on whatever was deemed to be the “major” road into the circle.

Here in Spain the circles are multitudinous, well-designed, and effective. Typically when directing a driver to a destination, you don’t count lights–you say, “turn left at the third circle.” Or glorieta, en español. They are often adorned with perimeter lights that change color, and almost always have a fountain, a sculpture, or plantings in the center. One we pass several times daily was recently graced with a venerably gnarly tree, probably from the nearby nursery that advertises olivos centenarios (hundred-year-old olive trees). Another local favorite features a large metal version of the gearwheel that is the symbol of the Rotarians, so we call it the Rotary Rotary. But by far the best, where we routinely make several full revolutions, is the one with the huge green bear statue in the middle. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be, but everyone we know calls it the Gummy Bear.

I’m going to miss all this circumnavigation when we move back to the States.

June 13, 2007

the silly season

Filed under: Spain — ilivetolearn @ 9:29 pm

There are major differences between election season in Spain and in the US. First of all, it IS a season here, not several years. There are strict controls on the duration of campaigns; they must finish by the end of business hours on the Friday before Election Day (always a Sunday). Citizens are called at random to do poll duty, in the way that jurors are called stateside. There are three at each polling place and they get a stipend of €55, as well as the right to arrive at work 5 hours late on Monday. This seems reasonable since they have to show up at 7 AM and stay till 9 PM. We learned all this from an American friend when we called her from a party Saturday evening to ask why she and her husband weren’t there. She said he had gone to bed—at 9:45!—because he was to be one of the miembros de mesa (literally, members of the table: poll workers) the following day.

The most noticeable neighborhood symptom of upcoming elections, aside from banners hung from streetlights with uniformly unflattering candidate photos, was that the construction projects were accelerated massively. People were working seven days a week and cutting sidewalk siestas down to two hours (yes, the workers literally stretch out under any random tree to nap), rushing to produce visible results so the incumbents could take credit. Unfortunately, some of the hurriedly-finished rotaries and median strips soon sprouted orange spray paint indicating that they had to be dug up and moved a foot or two to the east or west. A Spanish specialty—install traffic-calming devices, complete with expensive landscaping and soaker hoses, then bring the jackhammers out to undo and redo the whole project.

June 12, 2007

redressing wrongs

Filed under: Spain — ilivetolearn @ 7:44 pm

Practically as I posted the last entry, the ETA announced an end to their cease-fire, so Chaos went back to jail when he left the hospital. Around the same time, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was released from prison after serving about a third of his sentence for second-degree homicide. The reputable US news services reported that he “pledges to obey Michigan’s assisted suicide law.” The Fox News headline said he was “released from jail, but continues his death mission.” The International Herald Tribune caption under his photo read: “Dr. Jack Kevorkian, wearing an ill-fitting sweater, leaves prison…” Only in Europe would his sartorial sins trump his actual indictable offense.

He is fortunate to live in Michigan, where felons are allowed to vote after serving their time. They don’t have to wait until their parole is over, they don’t have to petition the governor…they can just show up at the polls. A Michigan Congressman, John Conyers, introduced a federal bill barring states from permanently taking away voting rights, but as it was 2002 this measure didn’t get far. Maybe the new Congress will get on it.

June 4, 2007

everybody votes (well, at least 60% participation)

Filed under: Spain — ilivetolearn @ 1:33 pm

Municipal and provincial elections took place May 27th and the PSOE (the socialist party, led by Zapatero, el presidente del gobierno)  and the PP (partido popular, the center-right party led by Mariano Rajoy) went head to head during the campaign season. The results of these local votes are seen to presage the national contests next March—in fact they are considered “primaries” for the General Election, so the stakes are high.

The most divisive issue is terrorism, with Rajoy and his followers speechifying that a vote for any socialist candidate is a vote for the ETA. Zapatero, in an extremely controversial move this past March, sent convicted ETA terrorist Iñaki de Juana Chaos to a hospital instead of having him complete his latest 2-year sentence in jail. He had already finished a much longer sentence for his role in ETA assassinations; this one was for making terrorist threats. Chaos (aptly named) hadn’t eaten since November, and Zapatero feared a prison death would produce a martyr. Today’s paper reports that Chaos is ready for discharge from the hospital in San Sebastián–after 96 days. It must have been a very debilitating 114-day hunger strike. He will now be on house arrest for the remainder of his term.

After all the slings and arrows had been hurled, the voters returned pretty much all of the incumbents to power. The PP won where it always wins (Madrid, Valencia, La Rioja, Castilla León, Murcia) and the PSOE won where it always wins (Sevilla, Barcelona, Castilla La Mancha, Extremadura). In el pais vasco (Basque country) the moderate nationalists (PNV) lost some ground to the more hard-line separatists (ANV). Maybe by the time these officials are up for re-election, Chaos will be voting again. The US is the only democracy that allows states to permanently disenfranchise convicted felons.

May 22, 2007

the euro, five years after its takeover

Filed under: Spain — ilivetolearn @ 11:20 am

Not only is Spain still very much a cash economy, it’s still very much a peseta economy, notwithstanding the swift official transition to the euro (Jan. 1 to Feb. 28, 2002). Pesetas ruled for 130 years and many Spaniards, especially older people, have had trouble letting them go. Receipts still show the peseta equivalent of the purchase along with the euro total. And when people discuss large, infrequent expenditures like houses, cars, and college tuitions, they almost always quote prices in pesetas first.

Checks apparently exist, but I’ve never seen one. (Maybe they should be called Bin Ladens.) Stores don’t accept them, utility and phone companies expect direct bank transfers, and even the myriad school fundraisers (not as myriad as in the US by any means) require cash. It’s awkward to say the least to fill out a book club order form and then have to scrounge €13.78 in exact change and find an envelope strong enough to keep it from depositing itself in the bottom of Margo’s backpack. It doesn’t help that there’s no bill smaller than a €5.

One day last year I was obliged to pay for Evan’s trip to London with the basketball team, and also for his SAT review course. I felt very strange carrying hundreds of euros to the school, and even stranger when both the athletics director and the upper-school secretary took the stacks of fifties and dumped them unceremoniously into desk drawers. I think the newness of euros makes people see them as play money, whereas if I had handed over millions of pesetas, they might have treated them with more respect.

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