Thursday, January 31, 2008

Hostal Thoughts

 id=Tick tick tick ... twenty-four hours and Señor Gato Gringo and I will be checking out of the Bates Motel the Hostal Campana. I confess that I will hardly miss its nefarious cucarochas. Nor will I weep hot tears of regret at no longer being able to hear the hoards of Russians the hotel seems to attract - Russians whose idea of being quiet must start when the lids of their coffins are nailed into place because it certainly doesn't begin at 12:00, 1:00, or 2:00.

I will not lose sleep at being denied access to its restaurant's cuisine: a hearty fare of meat appetizers, meat as a first course, and meat as a second. Although their desserts appear to be meat-free, this is the country where 'lard cookies' are a delicacy so I make no assumptions. I briefly considered cramming a suggestion into the hotel's suggestion box - of serving breakfast before 8:00 when most people (or more importantly me) are astir rather than after - but for the fact that there is no suggestion box and the breakfast would probably be meat with a plate of meat on the side. And a glass of freshly squeezed meat juice.

But the most vivid image I will take with me of the Bates Motel the Hostal Campana will be the nicotine-stained sign affixed to the back of the door which reminds its unlucky guests that smoking is prohibited - not in the room - but in bed. If I were the Bates Motel's Hostal Campana's management - or the town's fire chief - I might chew over the possibility of upping the campaign against smoking, considering the number of cigarette burns on:

1) the bedspread
2) the bedsheets
3) the pillowcase
4) the drapes
5) the walls
and my favourite ....
6) the shower curtain (inside and out)

At least in Room 101 306. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that our hotel room appears to be suffering from a rather nasty & virulent case of ringworm. Pretty much the only thing missing are visible signs that a previous guest had spontaneously combusted during his or her stay - although that might explain some rather curious marks in the bathtub.

The only thing not afflicted with cigarette burns are the cockroaches and that's not for lack of trying on my part. So it's tick tick tick until hasta luego, or 'sta luego, or 'ta luego, or 'a luego or just 'luego to the Bates Motel Hostal Compana!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Room 306 101

 id=You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.

God love George Orwell. Such brilliance to personalize hell. Because life isn't tough enough.

I used to think that My Room 101, My Personal Hell, assuming that there is one and that I'm going there - and I've been assured that the weather and company are infinitely better than the alternative - would be an eternity of searching for apartments, packing up boxes, and moving. Preferably in snow, sleet, or a stultifying heatwave. This is a Personal Hell of Classical proportions and ranks, in my estimation, along with having to roll big stones up hills and being denied food and drink ad aeternum.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I've moved a lot in my life. Most of my friends and family justifiably don't even bother entering my address(es) into their address books any more because I'll probably/likely/undoubtedly be moving within 6 months. Some just cover up older addresses in their books with liquid paper, creating a mountain of hardened white stuff that yields a stratigraphy of my life for the archaeologist with too much time on his/her hands.

Moving is again on my mind. Six months in Madrid (Move #424), three weeks in a hotel in La Linea(Move #425) , and then another move on Friday (Move #426). An apartment secured for another 5 or 6 months.

But in spite of the fact that Move #426 looms on the horizon, I have to concede that being forced to move until the cows come home (and then some) might not actually be my Room 101. This was brought home to me last week when, in the wee hours of the morning when I had to take a wee, I encountered 2 cockroaches in my hotel bathroom. They were nonplussed at my presence; I was suicidal.

I hate cockroaches. I really hate them. I verb-stronger-than-hate cockroaches. And I'm a little afraid of them too.

Some people can live with them. I cannot. I had never even seen a roach until I took possession of my 2nd apartment in Toronto (Move #279) only to find that an extended family of cockroaches were inhabiting the oven. Every time I turned on the heat, a gazillion of the little fuckers came pouring out of the sides of the appliance. Eventually some would leave the family fold to take up residence in my toaster. I stopped eating toast.

In every apartment I lived in Toronto, there were roaches. Roaches in the bathroom, in the cupboards, and there was that pair of roaches that spent the night in the fridge, trapped in a hermetically sealed can of cat food, which crawled out no worse for the wear the next morning as I popped the lid. Cockroaches can live up to three months without food, a month without water and are cold intolerant. There is no god. Then there was the documentary on the Discovery Channel I stupidly watched in which roaches were filmed climbing into the cribs of sleeping infants in Florida, where they nibbled on the children's soft and pliant fingernails. After vomiting my grilled cheese, I turned the channel to the 2004 World Snooker Championships. That felt marginally safer.

Then there was a hiatus. No roaches in Halifax and remarkably none in Morocco - although some of my colleagues were plagued by them and squashed palmettos were a common sight on Rabat's sidewalks. And now there is the bathroom of Room 306. My Room 101 where the two inch & a half-long blighters considered me with ill-hidden disdain and didn't even have the courtesy to swing their massive antlers antennae about to register my presence, let alone scatter in the light.

I returned to bed but not to sleep. How could I sleep knowing that there were two cockroaches in the bathroom and another 2,453 procreating within the walls? I got up to make sure that all my possessions were properly zipped up and stood vigil against an assault.

And now, with Move #426 only days away, I have just had a sickening thought. For the first time in almost 20 years, I have viewed and selected an apartment without checking for cockroaches, for their telltale signs in cupboards and drawers. What the hell was I thinking of? Somewhere, perhaps from the hell of his own Room 101, George Orwell is laughing at me. And, sadly, rightly so.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

'uego Madrid

 id=The niceties of coming and going are a complicated business in Spain. If it wasn't enough having to get used to Spain's ubiquitous hola - even hollered up from underneath toilet stalls - additional pressure is exerted by employing the correct delivery of hasta luego. Hola is easy - but hasta luego? One doesn't say hasta luego, but 'sta luego, or 'ta luego, or 'a luego or just 'luego. I even heard a 'go once. Christ. Perhaps these variations can be explained as regional differences or as an indicator of the sincerity (or insincerity) of the 'see ya later' but if there is a code, I have yet to decipher it.

Tomorrow I'm off to the south of Spain. Not for good probably but for a bit. Señor Gato Gringo and I are starting new jobs, essentially doing the same crap job for the same crap money but - and this is the important part - in the sunnier warmer climes of Andalucía. I firmly believe that the
meteorologically motivated lateral job shift is a phenomenon grossly under-studied. But one which I readily embrace and endorse.

I hate winter. Yes, I'm Canadian. I still hate winter. I even hate Madrid's winter which isn't very wintery but is still winter because I cannot wear flip flops in January. I hate winter.

In conjunction with higher temperatures and brilliant blue skies, I anticipate the emergence of an erratic blogging pattern. I have no idea if my hotel has wifi but my vast and worldly travel experience tells me that where there is no mini bar, there is no wifi. I may have to blog in internet cafés. O the shame! Hubris! Hubris!
I may have to drink in the hotel bar. O the shame! Hubris! Hubris!

So until things are settled, posts may be a little non-existent. Or not. Who knows? Perhaps I'll just text message my posts to
Señor G.G.. Since he is unwilling unable to join me until the end of the month, transcribing my texts into insightful blogs will be a challenging experience and a much needed diversion from his pain and loneliness. Expect very short blogs. Or none at all.

I will miss Madrid.
'uego Madrid! - see you in September! I will miss Señor G.G, even more. 'uego Señor G.G.! - don't drink too much. See you in 12 very long interminable days.


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Sherry Baby*

 id=Last year - or rather 2006 - Madrid's talking heads passed an ordinance which sought to save energy, reduce light pollution, and present to tourists the world a more sophisticated cosmopolitan city by pulling the plug on its neon signs. Madrileños apparently are rather partial to neon lights and the overall effect was a very bright city out of control. Or so they say. I first came to Madrid after the dimmer switch was turned so, remarkably, I can offer no opinion. Although I could probably try.

Of Madrid's some 120,000 neon signs, one marquee - the city's oldest - was given a reprieve: the iconic Tío Pepe sherry sign which watches over the geographical centre and metaphorical heart of the city at the Puerta del Sol. I draw great comfort knowing that a humongous bolero-jacketed, guitar-wielding bottle with cocked rider hat - the mascot and namesake of the González-Byass winery's bestselling fino palomino sherry - is standing guard over the city.

It is, as the sign says, "the sun of Andalucía in a bottle".

So for this reason - and our love for the sun of Andalucía anything in a bottle - this year Señor Gato Gringo and I (with mi madre in tow) decided to spend part of our Christmas holidays in Jerez, one corner of Spain's so-called sherry producing triangle which it shares with Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. In Spain the fortified wine that we know as sherry is called vino de Jerez, or simply Jerez or Xérès.

Although Spaniards have been producing wine for over 3,000 years, it was ironically those Marauding Moors who introduced them to the art of distillation and, soon thereafter, a tipple of fortified wine blended with brandy was created
. Although the Qur'an prohibited the Muslim invaders, for whom present-day Jerez was Sherish (or شريش) from imbibing the eponymous wine (so again Sherish or شريش) that little dogmatic wrinkle didn't stop them from producing the wine even after the Caliph of Cordoba threw a holier-than-thou conniption and threatened to close them down.

 id=Today, under EU law, any bottle sold as 'sherry' must come from Andalucía's sherry triangle, much like 'champagne' must come from the Champagne region in France.

I had my first glass of sherry - Harvey's Bristol Cream, if memory serves - as a rather green undergrad at a university reception which I attended with my father for no less than the Prime Minister of Ireland. A tray of amber-filled glasses and only amber-filled glasses was deftly tilted in my direction and I experienced a brief moment of panic. This clearly wasn't wine. Take one, my father whispered. I did.

We spent the rest of the evening flagging down the waiter with the amber-filled glasses. I don't remember much about the Prime Minister of Ireland.

So off to Jerez where the city's Mayor McCheese is none other than Tío Pepe. Tío Pepe is everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean everywhere and then some more. He appears on sidewalk umbrellas and in store windows, sits atop weather vanes and on display shelves and, of course, figures larger than life at the González-Byass bodega.

It was of course, de rigueur, that we go on a bodega tour. In fact, we went on more than one. One should never pass up the opportunity of going on a distillery/winery/brewery tour unless one knows for a fact that there is no sampling after the tour guide's spiel about 600-litre North American oak casks and the chalk content of soil and flor yeast. And although it is all well and good to know that when Magellan prepared to sail around the world, he spent more cash on sherry than weapons, if there is no free and preferably unlimited booze at the end of the educational rainbow, don't go. I can't be more plain than that.

nately, at the end of the González-Byass tour - for which the highlight, id= notwithstanding the sloshed sherry-drinking cellar mice (click here to watch the sodden little rodents), was brushing my fingertips across Pablo Picasso's hand signed sherry cask - bottles of their bestsellers (and a basket of potato chips) were plonked on our table. What joy. With a nod toward the gift shop, our tour guide disappeared. Does it get more professional than that?

A tad sauced, a nonetheless incensed Señor G.G. (he was miffed because the people at table next to us left the sampling area with their bottles untouched and I wouldn't let him nick them) and a somewhat peeved Gatita (I was miffed because the people at the table next to us left the sampling area with their basket of potato chips untouched and he wouldn't let me nick them) weaved our way through the gift shop. There the Tío-palooza continues where there is nothing made by human hands doesn't have the jaunty little black bottle on it. id= And for the kids (you can never be too young to acquire a taste for fermented wine) there are even plush-toy sherry bottles which only a complete imbecile would waste good money on (that's mine on the left).

Such genius to coordinate the trip to the gift shop only after guests have consumed several bottles of 15% proof. I bet the people at the table next to us who left the sampling area with their bottles and chips untouched bought nothing. How shallow and empty and without purpose their lives must be.

Apologies if you have the Frankie Valli tune looping through your head now. Annoying, isn't it?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Kings, Camels and a Baboon

 id=Yesterday morning, after a fitful night's sleep, I awoke to find a coffee mug in my running shoe. Well not so much a coffee mug - although it was a coffee mug - but a small gift-wrapped box. And strategically placed next to it was Señor Gato Gringo's right dress shoe, it too the proud receptacle of a seasonally accoutered prezzie.

Against the odds, for Señor G.G. and I are not always the best behaved, Balthasar, Gaspar and Melchior - the Three Kings, Wisemen, or Magi or whatever - had visited us during the night. No wonder I had slept so poorly - it must have been the gurgling and percolating and farting sounds emanating from their camels that kept me up.

And I doubt that I was the only one tossed upon troubled waves of tangled bedsheets the night of the 5/6th. Every child in Spain - and I have this on good authority, namely their parents - not completely knackered out by watching the Three Kings parade extravaganza, waited in sleepless anticipation for the visit of the Los Reyes Magos. For in Spain children receive their Christmas gifts on January 6th - the Epiphany - rather than the morning of December 25th. There is a certain logic to it: the Namesake of the Celebration didn't receive anything (except arguably the gift of life and even then he squandered it) - not so much as a rattle or a receiving blanket - on the day of his birth until those Inscrutable Ones from the East came bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh.

So like Christ, Spanish kids just have to wait. But unlike Christ, they write letters to the Three Kings itemizing what they want. It's unlikely that baby Jesus was hankering for a casket of myrrh - a gift which, as the intoxicant offered to him while nailed to the cross, presaged his death. It would be like offering a newborn a carton of Marlboros with Extra Tar. Perhaps a wind-up duckie would have done the trick.

And rather than stockings, children leave out a very clean shoe (perhaps a milksop to the olfactory sensitivities of the magi) which awaits the largesse of los Reyes who enter, not through a chimney - because how stunned is that? - but through a window. I can only hope that, while en route, none of the We Three Kings from Orient Are try to smoke a rubber cigar. Especially a loaded one because otherwise, it could explode (BOOM!) and send them travelling far.

Kings and camels are sustained during the long night of travel by offerings of nuts, cognac and a pail of water (the latter presumably for the camels) left out by bed-bound children although one parent I spoke with said that in their house, a bottle of cava (Spanish sparkling wine) is left for the Kings. And do you know what? she asked. In the morning, that bottle is empty!

No kidding?

So yesterday there was much mirth in Spain amidst an unwrapping feeding-frenzy, fueled by massive portions of roscón de reyes, a ring-shaped (which cheerfully resembles Christ's crown of thorns) candied fruit-topped doughy confection which, to my mind, is about as appetizing as fruit cake. In it has been baked a bean or a small figurine, and the lucky individual who finds the bean not only risks breaking a tooth but has to pay the roscón provider the value of the cake. Fun that.

In our home, it was Special K and coffee. And the prezzies left by los Reyes. We elected not to dwell on the fact the two gifts they left in our shoes strongly resembled the 'secret San id=ta' gifts we bought for the office Christmas party which had been cancelled at the last minute. It was enough to know that real live honest-to-goodness flatulating camels stood outside our window that night bearing on humps ladened with gifts for the world's Spanish-speaking children two coffee mugs: one of which - and more importantly mine - is emblazoned with a camera-wielding baboon taking a photograph of his technicolour bottom ... marrying my fear of monkeys with my fear of cameras. However did the Wise Men know? Truly these Orientals are inscrutable.

Friday, January 4, 2008

El Gordo: Or My Big Fat Losing Spanish Lottery Ticket

 id=In the world of lottery tickets, there are winning tickets and losing tickets and the ticket you see on the left, dear reader, is a losing ticket. But not just any losing ticket but My Big Fat Losing Spanish Lottery Ticket. For it is - or was - my attempt at winning this season's top prize, el Gordo ("the Fat One") although it was in reality my contribution to the holder of ticket number 06381, a number which bears little resemblance to my own. Ticket holder 06381 is 3 million euros richer while I am 20 euros poorer. I could be consoled by the fact that the average Spaniard spends around 80 annually buying and contributing to the Christmas tickets purchased by friends, family, business associates and little league teams - as it is considered extremely unlucky to refuse - but I don't. I wanted to win.

To say that buying a ticket - or into a ticket - for the Christmas lottery is a obsession tradition in Spain is an understatement. The Sorteo de Navidad lottery has been around since 1812 and, based on its total prize payout - none of which came my way - is said to be the biggest lottery in the world. To my pea-sized brain, the system of generating tickets is as comprehensible as splitting at atom so allow me the indulgence of cutting & pasting that which is beyond my intellectual reach:

The Christmas Lottery is based on tickets which have 5-digit numbers, just like the regular drawing of the Spanish national lottery. Due to the enormous popularity of the game, each set of numbers on each of the tickets is sold multiple times, in several so-called "series". Moreover, since an entire ticket (called billete) is quite expensive, the tickets are usually sold as tenths (called décimos). On a private basis, or through associations and other organizations, it is also possible to buy or be given even smaller participations of one ticket.

Confused? My Big Fat Losing Spanish Lottery Ticket is - or was - a decimo, which I purchased for 20 - or 1/10th of the 200 ticket. It is quite possible that I won something but I can no more figure out the official prize breakdowns containing the winning numbers than the rules. With a selection of some 85,000 different numbers to chose from, loterias often sell tickets with the same number (or two), so it isn't unusual that holders of the winning numbers are neighbours. In 2005, the inhabitants of the Catalonian city of Vic won some 500 million euros - 500 million euros more than I did. One of the jackpot winners of last week's draw lives in Vic as well. Bastard.

For many Spaniards, el Gordo's draw - which always falls on December 22nd - marks the beginning of the Christmas season - whereas in North America, it begins around Labour Day. Since time immemorial (or to be more precise, December 12th, 1812) the numbers and corresponding prizes have been drawn from two large spherical hamster-ball-like cages. The balls can be inspected by the public in advance by submitting a letter to the lottery's president (Dear Sir, I'd like to see your balls ...) In days of yore (in and around December 12th, 1812) orphans called out the winning numbers but now pupils from the San Ildefonso school have taken over the weighty responsibility of singing out the numbers. Yes, singing. In truth, you haven't really lived until you've heard the otherworldly eerie chanting of these youngsters for the 3+ stultifying hours of the draw.

Having said that, I haven't really lived either because I only heard about 10 minutes of it - at a truck stop somewhere outside Granada where the fearsome incantations warbled from the bar's television set - but that was enough. I swear those kids had glowing eyes. And possibly tails.

I was encouraged, then urged, then finally shamed by my students into buying a ticket. How could I possibly live in Spain and not buy a ticket? they all argued. Indeed. But where to buy one? Because of past wins, certain lottery sellers enjoy long line-ups which snake around city blocks with die-hard superstitious gamblers hopeful Spaniards braving the cold and clutching 20 € bills. In 2006, a kiosk in Madrid's Puerta del Sol sold all the winning numbers and in spite of the fact that it was a 5-minute walk from my home, spoil-sport that I am, I declined to stand in line for 4 hours and instead bought My Big Fat Losing Spanish Lottery Ticket from a vendor 3 minutes from my home. Although I could have bought one from the seller 2 minutes from my home. Only pharmacies outnumber lottery kiosks in Spain and even then, I may have it backwards.

I suspect that queues in Vic were rather lengthy too.

unlike many many Spaniards, I wasn't glued, ticket in sweating hand, to the radio or the television set that fateful Saturday morning. And not just because I don't own a television set or a radio or that I was on a bus at the time. This in itself should press home the urgency of my winning el Gordo. In spite of the odds of winning - which my students assured me were in my favour - it was yet another day in a life wallpapered with losing lottery tickets. To be honest, I had held out little hope.

Not surprisingly, the day of
el Gordo's draw is also known as el día de la salud or "health day". As in "Mother of God, we just blew 120 € on lottery tickets and lost it all, but at least we have our health". Big freaking consolation. This year a priest in San Lorenzo de Zamora dreamt that the winning number would be 06380, so he purchased 30 series of that number which he then sold to his fellow townspeople. The winning number was 06381. At least the inhabitants of San Lorenzo de Zamora all have their health.

Not that I'm completely sworn off of lotteries. The El
Niño draw - the first gordo-like lottery of 2008 - will be held this Sunday and offers 770,000,000 € in prize money. Since the day coincides with the Epiphany, or the Visitation of the Three Magi to the wee one in the manger, this may be a good omen. After all, they were bearing gifts. Gifts like gold, frankincense and myrrh. And in my version of the story, those inscrutable Wise Men from the East brought euros. 770,000,000 euros to be exact.

Ticket sales for my second My Big Fat Losing Spanish Lottery Ticket end at noon tomorrow.