Thursday, November 29, 2007

Migraines & Midlife Crises

 id=I've been away from my computer for the last few days because the very thought of having to focus on those tiny esoteric symbols we commonly refer to as letters would have been the visual equivalent of the Big Bang. In short, I've had a migraine. This head implosion of mine which began as a crummy headache - most likely brought on from reading yet another Dan Brown novel - showed its true colours on the subway coming home from work two mornings ago.

As those telltale tiny white lights appeared before my eyes and the pain began to do the mambo in my blood vessels, I contemplated cancelling my afternoon class. As I sought a sign from the heavens whether or not this was a prudent course of action, the subway doors opened and two buskers entered the car. Two buskers with instruments - an accordion and a guitar - and, as history would soon prove - very loud voices. They stationed themselves directly beside my seat and began to strum and press buttons and depress levers and squeeze things and sing very lustily.

If you have ever had a migraine or even the soupçon of a migraine, then you know that having two Peruvian musicians strumming and pressing buttons and depressing levers and squeezing things and singing very lustily is probably the closest thing to torture in its purest sense without the aid of a Nazi or a KGB agent. Or Paris Hilton singing. If I had indeed sought a sign from the heavens, this was surely it.

Three stops later and I transferred to Linea 2 not because it'd get me home any faster but I had to get away from the Juan Valdez Twins. Just as the whistle blew a great bear of a man boarded the car with his accordion. Sweet mother of god. Faster than you can say jesus h. christ my head hurts, he breathed fulsome life into the bellows of his squeezebox and off we went on a whirlwind tour every Biergärten ever built in the Free State of Bavaria. I've seen him before - and given money to him on several occasions - and I swear that he recognized me because nodding and smiling at me, he came over beside me and played seemingly for my benefit only. I gritted a smile and willed my brain from seeping out from my ears and nose.

I crawled home and ate pills. Today I resurfaced.

Now, it's been quite a while since I've lived in a city with a metro system; in fact, it's been about 11 years. So I freely admit that wandering underground minstrels are rather new to me - I've seen them in the tunnels before in other cities but never actually on the trains. (Undoubtedly I've just proclaimed to the world that I am a hick.) Anyway, it came as a bit of a jolt a few months back to have my earnest and careful reading of Don Quixote shattered by the incredibly amplified opening notes of Vivaldi's Concerto No. 1 in E major, Op. 8, RV 269, i.e., "la primavera" or Spring. And when I say amplified, I mean with a portable amplifier. These musicians - singly or in pairs - play a tune, pass a cup around and then leapfrog to another car.

What amazes me is that for the most part, these musicians are really good. But what really amazes me is how much money they appear to make. After any given serenade that I've been an audience to, I've watched a goodly handful of commuters stuff 20- and 50-centimes and 1 euro coins into their cups. This for 3 minutes of work. I dare say they earn more than me. I dare say that wouldn't be too difficult.

Now I've been told by Señor Gato Gringo that many people of our generation will change jobs a minimum of three times during the span of their careers. This is somethi id=ng virtually unheard of in our parents' generation when you retired from your first job after 50 years. I believe I am currently on career #4 and certainly #5 (6, 7, & 8) can't be too far off. So it's good to know that, in the near future, should I acquire any aptitude playing an instrument or any talent rendering a passable tune - both skills which have been hitherto denied me - I too can become a busker.

Can't wait to tell my Mom.

Addendum: apologies to the friends, family and fans of Grammy Award-winning accordionist Walter Ostanek, (pictured above left). It's (I said it's not he's) something of a family joke. I should have used an image of an accordion but I have no self restraint. No apologies are offered to the friends, family and fans of Yosh & Stan Shmenge, aka, the Happy Wanderers (pictured above right).

Friday, November 23, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities

 id=It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Oops, wrong one.

Once upon a time there were two cities - except they're not so much cities as enclaves - which just happened to be in northern Morocco - except they're not so much Moroccan as Spanish. And unles
s you've lived in either Spain or Morocco, chances are you've never heard of either Melilla or Ceuta and for that oversight you can be forgiven. Ceuta is 28 km² while Melilla is smaller still and are, therefore, easy to overlook.

But history has shown that it is often the tiniest easy-to-overlook places that excite the most interest, int
rigue and bickering. These enclaves are no exception and have played witness - and victims - to the power struggles of the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, Byzantines, to name but a few. Melilla would eventually become incorporated into - not Morocco - but the Kingdom of Fes, while Ceuta bounced back & forth between warring North African dynasties until it was captured by the Portuguese.

With the reconquista of Spain - when the occupying Moors were ousted from Andalucía over 500 years ago - Melilla was incorporated into the Spanish province of Málaga. In 1580, Portuga
l lost its independence to Spain and the majority of Ceuta's population became Spanish. Fiercely Spanish. So fiercely Spanish that 60 years later, when a newly independent Portugal was at war with Spain, Ceuta was its only former colony that sided with Spain.

Currently, the two enclaves - the only EU cities located on mainland Africa - are the-grass-is-greener
destinations for daring & desperate Africans trying to reach Europe. The border crossing is a daunting place.

Thanks for the history lesson Gatita but so what? you ask. So what indeed? The problem lies in the fact that Morocco has laid claim to the two enclaves. It doesn't matter that neither city was ever part of the Kingdom of Morocco (est. 1956); the official Moroccan stance is that Spain is illegally occupying Moroccan territory. This month King Juan Carlos embarked on the first visit to Ceuta and Melilla by a Spanish head of state in over 80 years. This decision was not warmly received by the Moroccan government - visions of a stirred up hornet's nest come immediately to mind - and in response to the announcement, Morocco recalled its ambassador from Spain. Bet that really showed them.

The visit was "regrettable" it said. Rabat expressed "strong rejection and clear disapproval" of what was viewed as a visit to two "despoiled Moroccan towns."

"Spain must understand that the time of colonialism has ended, and for good." This from Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi who might take a good long hard look at Morocco's claims to the Western Sahara - the ancestral land of the Saharawi people which it 'annexed' in 1975.

So the King and Q
ueen came and people cheered and people booed. Around 1,000 Moroccans voiced their displeasure with the royal visit, and demonstrated at the border posts. On the other side of the barbed wire, Ceutians and Melillians of Moroccan descent expressed gratitude for the jobs they had - jobs they couldn't find in their villages and towns in Morocco - and enthusiastically waved little red and yellow flags.

And across the Straits of Gibraltar? Some 88% of Spaniards polled believe that the two autonomous cities are an integral part of Spain while 51% admit to not
understanding Morocco's claims to the territories since both cities have been Spanish for longer than Morocco has been a sovereign nation.

is a tale worthy of Dickens. If by some act of Allah - for nothing less could bring it id= about - the 2 cities, whose inhabitants are 85% Spanish (or Spanish origin) and 10% Muslim, revert to Moroccan control, that would signal the effective end of tapas bars in Morocco. No more cañas of cerveza; no more pinchitos of tortilla. No more Spanish potato chips!! And whether or not it is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done, that would truly suck.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bully for the Bull

Unthinkable! It would seem that the country whose cultural legacy includes the Spanish Inquisition (which no one expected) - the very land which spawned the hammer of heretics, the light of Spain, the saviour of his country, the honour of his order freethinker Tomás Torquemada - still, in the year 2007, has its iconoclasts. To the best of my knowledge I haven't actually met one and I confess that I had my doubts that these recreants even walked the earth. But no more! - for Señor Gatito Gringo's classroom has been cursed by the presence of one such heretic.

They are the anti-toro-ites. These so-called 'Spaniards' scorn, revile, spit upon el toro de Osborne. Quite simply, they hate the Osborne bull.

How can it be, you ask? I wish I knew. The 4,000 kilo, 14-meter high black silhouette of the bull has, without a doubt, become Spain's unofficial national symbol. Originally commissioned by the Grupo Osborne (sherry company) in 1956, the original bull (calved the following year) was smaller, had white horns, and bore the words Veterano-Osborne and a picture of a glass of brandy. The toro, as we now know him, only became bigger & better when, in 1961, legislation was passed that required a 150-meter distance between Spain's highways and any roadside advertising. As the bull pulled back, he grew in stature.

Then 13 years ago, a further insidious law was enacted which pro
hibited all roadside advertising - a law no doubt penned by an anti-toro-ite - and our Osborne bull was earmarked for the slaughterhouse. The bullophile public refused to be cowed by the Ministry of Public Works, and campaigned - with the help of Osborne - to 'save the bull'. Rather than knackering the bull altogether, a deal was struck: all references to Osborne sherry were to be blacked out - although 2 such Veterano-Osborne branded bulls still walk the earth. Or rather, stand atop their hills. The bull finally and now officially transcended its humble sherry-soddened roots and became a permanent fixture in Spain's cultural and physical landscape.

Of course even without the logo everyone knows that it's the Osb
orne bull except those who don't so then who cares? The bull is Spain. He - for he is a he, as one glance at his prodigious scrotal sac will verify - has become so closely associated with the country that Catalan nationalists targeted and vandalized the only bull in their region so often that authorities finally decided to put the bull out to pasture. Except in someone else's pasture.

There are now some 100 bulls guarding Spain cities and frontiers. Years ago I experienced the same thrill seeing my first Osborne bull as I did catching a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower for t
he first time. Admittedly, I don't get out much.

As a Canadian, I wouldn't object to seeing a hundred 4,000 kilo, 14-meter high black silhouettes of beavers scattered about the Great White North. But alas, as alluded to earlier, the bull does have his detractors. These philistines claim that the leviathan bulls are a blight, that they mar Spain's natural beauty and cite France's limp version - the Renault car company shield - as an analogous example of roadside advertising at its worst. Hardly analogous but certainly hideous. I don't doubt that there are those infidels in
Portugal who abhor the 'Sandeman man' port advertisements which dot the countryside but no one should listen to them either. In another time - but not another place - these anti-toro-ites, these apostates to the Truth Faith would be burned at the stake for the heretics they truly are.

But why rhapsodize about the bull? Why the somewhat squirrelly history lesson? Because today is the Osborne bull's 50th birthday! - no small feat among working bovines. And although we don't have any Osborne in the house, that won't prevent Señor G.G. and I from raising a
glass of his competitor's something special and wishing him a heartfelt ¡feliz cumpleaños!

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Madrid Haiku I: Ode to Spanish Potato Chips

O most perfect chip!
Simplicity is your name:
Patatas fritas

Haiku-ista's note:
The Spanish potato chip may quite possibly be the world's most perfect food. Hailing from a family of chip aficionados, I know a good chip when I eat one. The ingredients are simple: potatoes, salt and olive (or vegetable) oil. That's it. Why they're so sublime I haven't a clue. But they are. And I'll go one step further and admit that many a night Señor Gato Gringo and I forgo conventional pedestrian dinner fair and devour a bag or two of patatas fritas (and a cold cerveza) instead. Ahhh, good eats!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tuesday the 13th

 id=Triskaidekaphobia is the fear - rational or otherwise - of the number 13. Since one would be hard-pressed to think of how an aversion to something as innocuous as a number could possibly be rational - although the crew of Apollo 13 might beg to differ - then it is tempting to dismiss it as an irrational phobia. Or a superstition. But apparently there are over 67 million pinheads sufferers who are afflicted with this very fear. Not that that makes it rational. I'm just saying. Sixty-seven million is probably an unlucky number too.

I am not superstitious. I have stepped on so many sidewalk cracks and, consequently, broken my mother's back so many times that it is nothing short of a miracle that she doesn't have to resort to cleverly positioned mirrors suspended over the hospital bed in which she should, by rights, be confined in order to see us. Not that she would want to see me since I'm the one who broke her back in the first place.

But as it happens, today is martes trece, Tuesday the 13th. Tuesday, you ask. Why Tuesday? It would seem that unlike, say, 99% of the superstition-riddled world, Spain doesn't hold truck with Friday the 13th being an unlucky day. That's just plain silly. No, in Spain (and in Greece and Romania) it is Tuesday the 13th which is so clearly unpropitious. Or, more importantly, today.

There is a whole host of theories as to why the number 13 has been deemed ill-fated: Christians point j'accuse-ing fingers at Jesus' original headcount of apostles and the number invited to dine at the Last Supper. Earlier, Caesar crossed his Rubicon - or more accurately - the Rubicon with the 13th Legion which effectively put Rome in a state of civil war and annoyed a great many people. Still others cite older examples, including the absence of a 13th law in Hammurabi's Code, but that may have been an 18th century b.c.e. typo. A slip of the chisel. I hear that basalt is difficult to work with.

As a lunar year has 13 months, some argue that the number is evocative of mother goddess cults, and therefore became a vilified number - at least by the intolerant burgeoning Catholic Church. Architect Charles Platt postulated the theory that 13 is considered unlucky because we can count from 1-12 with our 8 fingers, 2 thumbs and 2 feet, but not beyond that. This is a fine theory if you're a 2-toed sloth. Since I am not and I like to include my toes when I count, I think we can dismiss that one too.

I might add that 13 is considered a lucky number by the Chinese but until they stop skinning still-living, fully conscious dogs and cats for their fur, I am going to ignore them. Thirteen is also a fortunate number for both Sikhs and Jews (children are bar or bat mitzvah-ed at 13) and because they don't milk bears for their bile unlike the Chinese, I am willing to give their beliefs some credence.

And Friday? The fact that Christ was crucified on a Friday is irrelevant. For those who hold with this theory I would add that he rose again 3 days later, so how unlucky was it? If anything, it was more of an inconvenience - a necessary evil, as it were. Of course anyone worth their salt knows that Friday the 13th entered the annals of history as an unlucky number because the Knights Templar were arrested en masse on Friday October 13, 1307. I mean, duhhhh.

And why Tuesday? I asked that very question to about a dozen (okay, 13) students today and I received about as many different answers. Some suggested that the day's association with Mars, the god of war, made it particularly malevolent, others that it was the day that Adam ate the apple, but most shrugged their shoulders and conceded that they had no idea. Some admitted that, as residents of The Global Village - which may or may not be the same thing as the European Union - they considered both Tuesday and Friday the 13th as inauspicious days.

All I know is that today has been a particularly shitty day. One of those days that began when the alarm went off 3 hours early (although it was actually on time) to this very moment as I realize that my tea has been steeping for 55 minutes on my kitchen counter. With a whole lot of shitty things in the middle, not the least of which was the fact that I broke not one but two fingernails today. But I'm not superstitious. Ask my mother. Ask her how her back is.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Artistic License

I am directly pasting the following post from fellow blogger Eurodogtraining. The complete post can be found here. Thanks to Ms. K for forwarding this link to me. Needless to say, I urge you to sign the petition.
Tuesday, 6 November 2007


Guillermo Habacuc Vargas, an "artist" from Costa Rica took a dog from the street and used it as an art exhibit and caused it to suffer and starve to death in the name of Art. I shall not post more pictures as they are disturbing and too horrific.
To sign the
petition to stop this madman exhibiting, click here:

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Culture & Lifestyle: Spaniards Eat Late

 id=But first the weather ...

September was warm, October was warmer, and if the portents can be trusted and everything augurs well, November will be warmer still. And because it's November and it possibly should be a little nippier in Madrid, the majority of Madrileños are bundled up against the cold in scarves, parkas or fur-lined ski jackets, and very tall & menacing leather boots. But the fact remains that it's November 6th and the temperature outside my window is a balmy 22 ° C.

Perhaps the winter outerwear is to appease the Seasonal Fashion God. It's November for Christ's sake. Twenty-degree temperatures be damned, I'm wearing my new winter clothes and the rabbit fur that lines my hood will just have to absorb the perspiration forming on my forehead. Or maybe people truly are cold. This being my first autumn/winter in Madrid, I haven't a clue.

Sadly, I did forsake my flip-flops around the end of September. And although it has rarely gotten colder than 17 ° C, the temperature does dip down at night. So we have made adjustments and concessions - beyond the flip-flops - and have begun closing our windows against the cold night air. This revolutionary decision has had two immediate consequences, one of which we did not anticipate. One: we were warmer (anticipated). Two: we could no longer hear our neighbours (unanticipated).

Our apartment looks inwards into a central courtyard, a 'view' shared by a dozen or so other flats; consequently during warm weather when all of our collective windows are open, we are all voyeurs or auditeurs of sorts. The yappy little dog, the old woman who's hard of hearing, and the workers who are renovating the apartment across the way have all passed through our windows and become fixtures in our home. But more than the eardrum-piercing television volumes, the incessant hammering and the yappy little dog, it is our neighbours' dining habits that have, at least in open-window weather, become our greatest cross to bear.

Spaniards eat late. This is a fact. Armed with the certain knowledge that Spaniards eat late, Señor Gato Gringo and I were pretty confident when, seven years ago, we first visited Spain. Spaniards eat late, we said knowingly to each other. We will have to make allowances. Odds are we even threw in some pithy little comment like when in Rome... Having arrived late in Seville on our first evening, we ate late. We had gone native without any fuss at all. Huzzah! Odds are we were pretty smug about it too.

Our second night in Córdoba was another matter. After a full day of travelling and traipsing about town, we were hungry. It was 6:00.
Spaniards eat late, we knowingly said to each other. We have to make allowances. By 7:00 I thought I was going to lose consciousness. By 8:00 I did. So we repaired to the first restaurant which showed signs of life (there was one only), La Gran Muralla de China. There we had what can only be described as a Sino-Hispanic meal: egg rolls, sweet & sour chicken, a bottle of rioja and flan for dessert. And perhaps because we were the only patrons in the restaurant, the service was excellent. Just as we were preparing to leave, real live people began to filter in - real live people who at 9:00 were apologizing to the waiters for arriving so early. Spaniards eat late.

Our neighbours routinely begin dinner preparations around 9:30. Not eat dinner, prepare it. So three hours after
Señor G.G. and I enjoyed our seitan cutlets and are well on the way to digesting them, it begins. First: The Chopping. The Chopping of onions and garlic and peppers. Chop chop chop. We hear a dozen Samurai warriors piercing the night with their blades. Next: The Wafting. The Wafting of onions and garlic and peppers as they hit the hot oil. The Wafting of anything that once was part of a pig.

It smells so good we want to weep. Dinner is still at least an hour away for our neighbours but we - who
enjoyed our seitan cutlets three hours ago - are salivating and weeping in unison. This is too much moisture for us to bear so with rumbling stomachs and tear-stained faces we go upstairs. It is our bedtime. Shortly after Señor G.G. turns out the light, we hear the clinking of cutlery and the scraping of chairs as our neighbours finally sit down to table.

Spaniards eat late, we say knowingly to each other, burying our faces into our pillows. Our efforts to block facial orifices fail miserably. It smells so good we continue weeping. We console each other with the uncertain certainty that our neighbours are all developing dyspepsia, are rapidly gaining weight, and/or are experiencing freak periods of unsightly bloating.

But now our windows are closed and we don't have to hear The Chopping or smell The Wafting.
Spaniards eat late and, the simple truth of it is, we will never be able to go native.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


To the best of my knowledge, I have never blogged about what I did on the weekend or disclosed intimate details about myself just for the sake of 'sharing'. With the exception of the picture to the right, I never post photographs of myself. Although I would characterize myself as an intensely private, perhaps even secretive, person (I am a Scorpio), my assumption is that little I do is terribly interesting - certainly not blog-worthy - to myself, nor would it be to a blogosphere of strangers. But today I have chosen to break my own rules.

Señor Gato Gringo and I went to the movies today. The film was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Why do I mention this? For a number of reasons. Once we made the decision to go see the film, the folk song Jesse James started coursing through my brain. Although I don't pretend to have the entire song committed to memory, I can still sing a few verses as well as the chorus:

Well Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life,
Three children now they were brave.
Well that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard,
He laid poor Jesse in his grave.

Nonetheless I was jolted when, towards the end of the film, the song was performed by a bowery saloon singer. I had forgotten that the song was contemporaneous and not of my childhood - such is the egotism of the very young. A Robin Hood in his day, James' victims were usually those who exploited and persecuted the farmers of America's midwest: the railroads and the banks (he stole from the rich and he gave to the poor) and to many disenfranchised he was a hero. Unarmed, the once Civil War guerrilla turned desperado was shot from behind by friend Robert Ford, further mythologizing his life, betrayal, and death; shortly after his murder, an unknown balladeer named Billy Gashade wrote the song I watched Nick Cave perform today.

The ballad has been performed by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen
but it was my father who first introduced me to the song. My father used to sing to me - as he did my brother before me - at bedtime, usually American folksongs (although we are Canadian) like Jesse James or the Missouri Waltz or pretty much anything by Burl Ives. That my father sang and read to me as a child is something for which I am profoundly grateful. To this day, when I hear any rendition of All the Pretty Little Horses, I cry.

So today I saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and sang the song in my head before, during, and after the film. Today also marks the 8th anniversary of my father's death. He was my hero. And for that I cry too.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

For All The Saints

 id=Today Madrid is empty; you can, as Señor Gato Gringo is fond of saying, fire a cannon down any street and not hit anyone. That's not entirely true because there are tourists milling about, forming long lines at the nearest Starbucks, cameras and guidebooks in hand but, for the most part, it's a dead city. It would seem that Madrileños have absconded to one of two places: anywhere except Madrid or the cemeteries. This is not surprising: today is November 1st. More accurately, All Saints' Day. More importantly, a holiday.

Traditionally this is the day that Spaniards flock to the cemeteries to tend to the graves of those who have already shuffled off this mortal coil. With brushes and soap and fresh flowers in hand, graves and headstones will be spruced up until an anniversary comes along or until this time next year. Why this is done today rather than tomorrow - All Souls' Day - completely escapes me. One of these days I'll have to ask someone to explain it to me.

For those who have seen Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, you might recall the opening scene of the film, set on All Saints' Day, in which scores of families (= women) gather at a cemetery in La Mancha to tend to the graves of - to coin Somerset Maugham - their Loved Ones. Now the illegal downloaded version of the film that Señor G.G. and I viewed has the dubious honour of being the worst subtitled film in the history of celluloid and bears with it the can't-be-overstated moral cum truism that you get what you pay for. (In this case nothing. In this case crap.) The mental leviathans who translated it clearly typed the entire script into Babel Fish and then pressed "enter", rendering such gems as "it costs" for vale - the Spanish okay - confusing it with the verb valer (to cost). It took me a while to realize that Penélope Cruz - with her Vale! Vale! Vale!'s - wasn't some price-obsessed harpy.

Traditionally this is also the day when those Madrileños who don't have family buried here - or don't give a rat's ass about such niceties as excavating the dirt collected in the R.I.P. of a headstone with a toothbrush - hit the road and take a long weekend. When holidays - and this is the first in a slalom of national and civic holidays leading up to Christmas - fall on a Thursday or Tuesday, it is common to take a puente, or a bridge. In other words, create a just-add-water extra long weekend. Viva Espagne.

Traditionally, this was a day that as a child, I tore our house apart looking for the place where my mother hid the booty - the molasses kisses, caramels, and rockets - from the previous night's trick or treating foray. I invariably found it and, I suspect, she invariably knew but said nothing.

Traditionally Today Señor G.G. and I walked the streets of an empty city - for only selected bars and cafés are open - basked in the 20° celcius sunshine, marvelled at the pansies thriving under a pre-midwinter sun, mocked the tourists (Señor G.G and I are incredibly shallow people), and stopped for cocktails at a sidewalk bistro chosen at random. This is our new tradition. We have no graves to clean, no mountain chalets to go to; instead, we are content to enjoy a city forsaken by its inhabitants and enjoy a pint and a glass of rosé in the company of winter-fat sparrows and Madrid's ubiquitous Scottish terriers.

And do our thoughts turn to the saints? Perhaps Saint Martin - the patron saint of wine - and Saint Adrian - the patron saint of beer. True Spain is a secular country but we are sensitive to its Catholic roots and like to do our part.