Cine de Barrio on Spanish TV

Here I sit at my computer, poking away at this blog entry, as Sara Montiel sings the copla song “Una, Dos y Tres” in the 1959 Spanish movie, “Carmen, La de Ronda” on the weekly TV program Cine de Barrio. Today’s movie takes place in 1808 in the Andalusian town of Ronda. Carmen, the main character, is a beautiful gypsy girl who sings every day in the town market and falls in love with the invading French Sargent. Gripping.

Cine de Barrio is a program on Spain’s TVE, channel 1,  broadcasting every Saturday since 1995. Now it’s shown at 7pm and hosted by the Spanish actress Concha Velasco – formerly hosted by the 80+ year old actress/goddess, Carmen Sevilla.

Cine de Barrio shows Spain’s “classic” movies, usually from the 1950s to the 1970s. This was Spain’s “Golden Age” of cinema and these movies always contain several coplas or flamenco songs sung, although they weren’t considered musicals.

Every Spaniard considers Cine de Barrio their mother’s or grandmother’s favorite program (still or since 1995, anyway). The movies always depict small village life, plight of the poor, and always “traditional Spanish morals“. The old songs sung are also every Spaniard’s mother’s – or grandmother’s – favorite songs, sung while cleaning or cooking in the family home.

During the breaks in the movie, since (currently) TVE show no commercials – outside of publicizing their own programs, Concha Velasco will discuss the movie they’re watching with her co-host, interview famous (read: old) Spanish actors – sometimes from the movie they’re watching, and occasionally there’ll be an advertisement hawking “glamorous” costume jewelry worn by or purses carried by former hostess Carmen Sevilla. Kitsch.

So WHY do I have Cine de Barrio on my TV? Truth is, I don’t sit-and-watch it, but do like to catch the singing numbers and scenes of “old Spain” before the international invasion. Plus, the 85-year old Spanish woman sitting in my living room never misses the program.

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Hearing Flamenco Music in my Madrid Neighborhood

I’ve often been criticized for liking, even enjoying Flamenco music by my Spanish peers. “Only our grandmothers listened to flamenco music because that’s all there was!“, they’d say. Thusly, flamenco has been mostly shunned by popular Spanish culture – OUTSIDE of the gypsy community, that is.

Just today I was walking home from doing the shopping and heard one woman singing a “copla” while she, I’ll presume, was making lunch or cleaning house. Another window was blaring pop-flamenco song from their home stereo. A car whizzed by with open windows, also blaring flamenco music from RadiOlé. And just now, a small group of girls, presumably gypsies, were clapping in unison, as “palmeras“, under my window. It’s also not at all unusual to hear a male voice singing flamenco in my neighborhood as he runs his errands.

Some of you Spaniards living in Madrid will ask me, “But WHERE in Madrid do YOU live to hear Flamenco played and sung?” Many of you, outside of Spain, will think this must be totally natural and normal. The truth is, flamenco is mainly only heard in poorer areas of Spanish cities, where gypsies live – together. And that’s where I live, in a working-class neighborhood near one of these communities. I actually love it! If I lived in the Barrio de Salamanca, for example, surrounded by wealthy, sometimes snobbish people, I wouldn’t be exposed to this part of SPANISH culture.

Some gypsies are better-to-do and live in the Lavapies part of Madrid. Others do have money. But probably the vast majority of them do not and are supported by the state as an indigenous culture to Spain, kind of like the Native American Indians in the USA. Most of these do not work and can get into – or cause – trouble since they simply have nothing better to do.

I have a large community of gypsies living within a block of me and I’ve never had a single problem with them personally. I’ve always been told not to interact with them, never look at them sideways, and, generally, stay out of their way. They say if you bother one of them the group will come after you – and I have no reason not to believe them. They live in their own community, in their own microcosm, and live by their own rules. Flamenco music is only one of their identities. The rest, only they know because their society is closed to outsiders.

There’s no danger here, really. They generally keep to themselves. But hearing flamenco being sung and hearing “their music” is a delight for me, an outsider. I know a lot of Spaniards feel just the opposite, generalizing the Gypsy community as ne’er do wells, drug addicts, drunks, thieves, trouble-makers, loudmouths, uncouth, and a number of other things. I can’t say any of that is true as I’ve yet to speak to one – and they live practically next door to me, and that’s a shame. But I do love their music and their culture fascinates me.

I’ve never seen anyone dance flamenco around here, though. That may well only take place behind closed doors at homes. I have seen, however, the flamenco guitar played once in a local bar. The flamenco singing is clearly amateur, family taught, but is equally clearly full of sentiment. No polka-dot dresses or flamenco shoes worn around here, either.

It almost appears that more foreigners, more Ex-patriots living in Spain – or simply “Spain Lovers” – are more infatuated with Flamenco music than Spaniards themselves. I guess that’s pretty normal. We tend to turn away from our history, from the old-fashioned, from that which labels us. It’s understandable and sad, all at the same time.

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Madrid Menu del Dia for 7 Euros in the Neighborhood

Cafetería Javi” – a.k.a. “Bar Ramos” – on the Calle Sagrados Corazones, 25, in Madrid, near metro station Alto de Extremadura (L6), is my favorite neighborhood bar at which to have a wonderful, and economical, “Menú del Día” for just 7 Euros!! You really can’t beat that. Actually, you can, but you have to know where to go.

MARCH 2013 IMPORTANT UPDATE: Just 3-days ago, Cafetería Javi raised their prices from 7 Euros to 8 Euros for their menú del día. Still a good deal for a “home cooked meal”.

Cafetería Javi“, run by the thin and never-stopping 40-something Spaniard Javier, has been a my local favorite recent years as much for their food as for their prices and personal, friendly service. It’s a neighborhood establishment, across the Río Manzanares and the Puente de Segovia (bridge) but not all that far from the tourist center of the city. Maybe they’ve been open for all of 5 years, but I’d just discovered them about 3 years ago on one of my walks to-from other bars or stores, always trying to take a different route in order to educate myself of my surroundings.

This is one of those neighborhood bars where “the regulars”, nearly 100% Spanish clientèle, tend to have their lunch and/or their pre-lunch drinks. The bar is at the entrance, but the dining room, with all of 10, 2-person tables, is just past the bar. The nice-looking, 20-something waitress, also Spanish, is so friendly, and I have to wonder if, maybe, she’s Javier’s wife. I’m afraid to ask for fear of embarrassment.

Today I got to the bar early, around 1:15pm (HARDLY Spanish lunch time, mind you!), and only 2 of the tables were occupied. The one I took was at back, the last table below the big-screen, flat-panel, wall-mounted TV with TVE1’s cooking show on; the male chef plus 4 female, high-heel-and-tight-pants-wearing “hostesses” cooked up some chicken dish.

The table next to me was occupied by an elderly couple, probably in their late late late 70s or early 80s, and both impeccably dressed. She was in a dress, heels, costume jewelry, and a hair-do which was likely done that morning. He was in dress pants, black leather shoes, a button-down shirt, tie, and a cardigan sweater. (you can see this couple walking away in the above photo)

Upon walking amongst the occupied tables, I smiled and nodded at the customers and gave the obligatory, “Buenos días. Que aproveche,” or, “Good morning. Enjoy your meal.” Remember, it’s not officially afternoon until 2pm in Spain!

On a previous neighborhood walk, I’d noticed Javier had lowered his prices from 8.50 Euros to 7 Euros. Hey, 8.50 Euros was already a good price for a “Menú del Día” so I was curious as to what caused the drastic lowering of price. Surely Javier would tell me the inside story. Could it be the economic crisis? Were they losing customers? Was there some danger of closing my favorite bar and losing a good, neighborhood friend? Turns out, no.

Since today is Thursday, and since nearly every bar serving a “Menú del Día” today is serving “Cocido Madrileño“, THAT’S what I ordered. Man, I love Spanish food. REALLY!! HOW could anyone in their right-mind prefer a hamburger, fries, and a Coke to this before me?!? It’s totally INCONGRUENT!!! Makes so sense whatsoever! The story goes that Spain’s dictator for 40-years, General Franco, enjoyed hunting in  Madrid’s Retiro Park (okay, this is my recollection and could be totally wrong! I’ll attempt to confirm this later today) on Thursday mornings and, afterwards, would insist on this garbanzo bean, carrot, and meat stew for lunch. And so, by ordering “cocido madrileño” on Thursdays, am I supporting fascism and dictatorship?!?? Hmm…. I’ll have to give that one some thought….

So back to the meal at Cafetería Javi… I take my seat and notice the tables are no longer covered with paper sheets, but instead by white cloth table-cloths, on top of which is another, narrower, yellow table cloth covering. “¡Qué Nivel, Maribel!” Looks like we’re movin’-on-up! The napkins are still paper, but big deal.

The aforementioned Spanish waitress moves in fast and asked me what I’m drinking with my lunch. “The Usual, ” I say, “Vino con Casera” – “Wine with Casera-brand carbonated water.” “Casera” is a brand name, but the general, trade-name is “Gaseoso” – or “carbonated water”. Why the Casera, you ask? Do you HAVE to ask?? Historically, bars tend to offer red “Table Wine” or “House Wine” with meals as it’s cheaper and of lower quality. The effervescent and slightly sweet “Casera” water “cuts” or “diverts” attention away from this fact. I always order the “Casera” for this reason, but also to have water left over at the end of the meal. Wine is included in the meal’s price and they don’t charge extra for requesting “Casera” water – although it’s clearly an added expense to the bar/restaurant.

I order the “Cocido Completo“, which includes the first course of “sopa de cocido” – short noodles (half-inch each noodle) in chicken broth, the second course of stewed garbanzo beans, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, chicken, beef, pork, chorizo, and “tocino de cerdo” (pure pork fat- yuck, I never eat that), and the dessert. For dessert, I chose the home-made “flan con nata” – “flan with whipped cream”. MAN, DON’TCHA JUST LOVE SPANISH FOOD?!?!? Oh, wait. I already said that. And, of course, the obligatory bread is included in the price of the “menú del día”, too. They gave be 3 good-sized pieces of bread, but only ate two. Gotta sop-up the sauces after the soup, cocido, AND the flan, don’tchaknow!! Oh, gawd, don’tcha just love Span… Okay. Okay. That’s enough, already.

So HOW can Javier serve all this for a meager 7 Euros? He came by my table, called me “Campeón“, as always, and asked how I was doing. It’d been a month since my last visit but told him I was happy to see him. He’d come by at least twice to see if I was enjoying my meal (that’s a very “American” customer service, but not so very Spanish, in my experience), and I told him it was as good as the elderly couple next to me had expressed to him directly only moments before.

Javi said he’d lowered his prices to 7 Euros, not because of the crisis or fall-off of customers, but rather to make things easier in the kitchen by NOT including the free salad at the beginning and the free “chupito” (“liqueur” – it aids digestion, SO THEY SAY!!) at the end as he did before when the price was 8.50 Euros. I guess that makes sense. Not everyone wants/eats the salad so that would be a partial waste. And not everyone wants/drinks the “chupito” at the end of the meal. He made a smart business decision, I’d say. This way they can not only be more efficient but also more economical and, also, more considerate to the needs of the customer. If the customer DOES want the salad, (s)he can pay extra for it. If the customer DOES want the “chupito” or coffee afterwards, (s)he can pay for that. Invariably, they’ll let you substitute a coffee for the dessert, and that’s a nice detail.

Since “Cafetería Javi” isn’t in Madrid’s Old Town, there’s little chance any of you reading this will patronize his establishment, and that’s okay. His clientèle is mainly the neighborhood and, it seems, with that he can make a living. That’s what’s most important. But should any of you desire to experience “neighborhood cooking and service”, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly to accompany you if you should feel, in the slightest, uncomfortable or out-of-place in this neighborhood establishment.

Oh, and by the way, since it’s practically a custom, I DID order the “chupito” of “Liqueur de Hierbas” after the meal – for 1.20 Euros. That’s not bad after the great price paid for the meal, and it adds a little to the bottom line of my buddy Javier’s bar. Oh, and as a side-note, the bar-side terraza is busy in nice weather, too!

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Madrid Post Office Trip

Maybe using the word “trip” isn’t the best way to describe today’s visit to my local post office (“correos“), but it did take 15 minutes to walk there. It’s located on the far side of my neighborhood, passing the metro, 2 markets, and a bunch of shops and bars. But the weather was super nice today, nearing 60ºF/16ºC and sunny so it was a nice walk.

I went to send some Spanish magazines to a friend in England as well as a couple of birthday cards to family in Switzerland. It was a beautiful day and I just made it before they closed! Invariably I pass someone I know when I’m out-and-about and am obliged to stop and chat, but that didn’t happen today, luckily, due to time.

Leaving the house in a bit of a rush at 1:15pm, my first stop was to “Los Chinos” to get two birthday cards for my nephews. The Chinese woman eyed me up and down, seeing that I was carrying a white plastic handle-bag, into which I could potentially stuff stuff and walk-out without paying. Surely this happens all-too-often for them. But then the woman looked up at my face, recognized me from my many previous visits, and gave me a smile and a nod. It can be hard choosing greeting cards for ANY occasion, but I was in a hurry. Good thing the boys are young so they’re not too picky. I like that the cards are produced by European re-forested lands, lands grown and re-grown strictly for their wood produce, kind of like wood farms, I guess.

Next, through the neighborhood, passing the bars on the left, bars on the right, left, right, and left and right again on my way, all the old guys, standing, having their glass of wine, small caña beer, vermouth, munching on free tapas, and the other old guys at the bar’s sliding glass window on the sidewalk while smoking their stogies – cigars. There are always a few women in these places, too, but far fewer. Plus, on a Tuesday afternoon, most Spanish women – those whom aren’t retired or unemployed – are at work or at home making lunch, while their men, be them unemployed OR retired, are drinking-it-up at the local bar and chatting with their lifelong buddies.

There was a bench in the shade next to the post office so I took a seat and feverishly fill-out the cards and address the envelopes. There are old people everywhere; some in wheelchairs and some plodding along with canes, some being assisted by younger fold and others tugging their daily (personal) shopping carts behind them on their way home to lunch.

It’s 10 minutes to 2pm and I walk in to the post office, expecting a long line – but there’s not a soul at-the-wait. Thank goodness! I step up, ask for an envelope for my magazines, fill out the address, put the wheels in motion, and pay-up. The lady attendant is really nice. MUST be nice to work from, what, 7am to 2pm ONLY! (okay, they probably work until 2:30pm) THESE are “funcionarios“. Remember how the US Postal Service was a government job? (yes, it still partially is). That’s how it is in Spain. EVERYONE wants these secure, well-paying jobs, no matter how boring they may be. I leave the post office and take the long way home, rounding the building to find 5 postal workers at the back loading dock smoking away and enjoying a nice pre-quitin’-time break.

My original plan was to go to the local bar for a nice, cheap, “menú del día”, but decided to head home as it was already after 2pm and the bars would/might be busy by this time. I’ll go tomorrow to my buddy’s place, “Cafetería Javi“. I recently noticed he lowered his “Menú del día” prices from 8.50 to 7.00 Euros and this worries me for the “health” of his bar. Tomorrow, I’ll find out what the story is.

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Ballet in Madrid’s Teatro Real

Last night I had the great pleasure to witness the ballet in Madrid’s Teatro Real, featuring the “Danza Contemporánea de Cuba” – the 20-person Cuban Contemporary Dance Group. No, this was not a tutu-and-pionte-shoe classical ballet, but it did not disappoint, either. And HOW can one not enjoy a night out in Madrid’s Opera House?!?!

The performance consisted of 3 parts:

  • DEMO-N/CRAZY, 32 minutes
  • FOLÍA, 23 minutes
  • MAMBO 3XXI, 33 minutes

The first segment, “DEMO-N/CRAZY“, (image above) started with 6 dancers; 3 female and 3 male, all dancing in nothing but “tighty-whitey” underwear – no tops for any of them. (yes, you read that correctly) Now, that was a surprise! But when you have bodies like theirs… why not?! Later in the first segment – and for the rest of the performance – all female tops were topped. Remember, this is contemporary dance so nearly anything goes – and it did.

The second segment, “FOLÍA“, consisted of all dancers, both male and female, dancing in long, lightweight, red skirts and skintight red tops. Amazing. See the video clip above from 2009. This segment had more music and was more lively than the first part.

The third and last segment, “MAMBO 3XXI“, was the liveliest of the three. All 20 dancers were dressed in street clothes; chino pants and button-down shirts for men, t-shirts and shorts for women, all wearing tennis shoes. This segment was a dance-fest with fast-paced techno-music. Very entertaining!

After the first and second sets there was 20-minute break. My only real criticism of this ballet is that the dancing time was too short and the number of breaks too many. Total ballet time was 1 hour 28 minutes and then 40-minutes in breaks. Although I have to admit the shortness of the segments and the length of the breaks did allow for a very relaxing evening. I was actually thankful.

The contemporary ballet performance was entertaining, seemingly well choreographed, and probably just the right length for those with ADD like me. The Teatro Real itself is, well, the Teatro Real. It really doesn’t get much more elegant than that. At the first break I had a “tostada” (food on toasted bread) and “cava” (sparkling white wine) at the starlit-ceiling bar in the restaurant facing – and with views of – the Plaza de Isabel II (a.k.a. “Plaza de Opera“). At the second break, I went to the fourth floor bar and lounge, the latter of the two offers spectacular views of the illuminated Royal Palace-Palacio Real through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors. In good weather, they often open these doors, allowing the public to go out onto the long, wide terrace with their cava to appreciate the gardens of the Plaza de Oriente below and the Royal Palace at the far end. Just beautiful.

After a pleasant evening at the ballet in Madrid, I went to the somewhat pricey, yet rustic and elegant “Taberna del Alabardero“, located right next to the Teatro Real. I ordered the house specialty, a tapa of the “patatas a lo pobre” (“poorman’s potatoes”) which had the most DELICIOUS garlic & olive-oil sauce and the best bread for dipping/scooping. Mmmm.. This, with a glass of Cune red Rioja wine, was the perfect end to a wonderful night.

Madrid's Teatro Real Foyer 2012Madrid's Teatro Real Auditorium 2012Madrid's Teatro Real 2012: Tostadas and Cava at the Ballet BreakMadrid's Palacio Real at night as seen from the Teatro Real 2012

Also see: “Ballet Nacional de España in Madrid“.

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English-Speaking Friends Return to Home Countries

This is not a tourism-focused blog entry. Clearly! But I often have “feelings”, other experiences, which really have nothing to do with tourism. I guess any non-Spanish-native has these longings, these deep, inexplicable yearnings for sound, safe, familiar grounds. This, I found in these “lost” friends.

These days I’m feeling somewhat melancholy about the 3 friends I’ve “lost” these last 12-months. All three, non-Spaniards, have returned to their home-countries due to these difficult Spanish economic times. 2 are English and 1 is Irish. Sure, I have a number of Spanish friends, but, somehow, it’s different. I’m not sure if it’s simply the language or the common culture from hundreds of years ago, but I miss their proximate friendship, their association, their company.

Amazingly enough, in my 6 years living in Madrid, Spain, I’ve yet to make one American social friend. I have American Facebook Friends which live in Madrid – and they’re wonderful and supportive – but none with which I socialize. Maybe, simply, because the percentage of Americans is so far inferior to those British/Irish living in Spain.

Surely there are Americans living in Madrid with which I could get along. The British/Irish, have something different for me, however. To Americans, they’re exotic. I’d never had a British/Irish friend while living in the USA – apart from one English woman, Michelle, on the Costa del Sol, with whom I’ve been friends since the beginning of the Internet – and still am!

2 Brits and 1 Irish, all returning to their home countries because they either couldn’t find work in Spain – OR because they couldn’t find “meaningful” work in Spain. At least 2 of the 3 returned because they knew they could make two-to-three times what they could in Spain. One, the Irish person, told me recently, that with the money she’s make in Ireland would more than pay for some fantastic holidays (“vacations”, in American English) in Spain.

Everyone has a different story. Sometimes I feel like I’m the ONLY American-in-Madrid, but I know there are others out there. Some, a tiny few, are married to Spaniards. Others are students. More, still, are toiling as English teachers making a less-than-living wage. Then there are the “illegals”. Sure, there are many “illegals” in Spain and, even, illegal Americans and British living in Spain. Believe  it – or not!

Today I refer to Steve, Sally, and Ide. All have had to return to England or Ireland in order to “buscar la vida” (“find their futures”) in their home countries. Everyone must consider their own security and their futures seriously. I understand that. But those left-behind do tend to suffer for the loss of their friends.

Nearly weekly I receive emails from (mainly) Americans which desire to “live the dream” of living in Spain. When I reply to them I do so with a kind of restricted conscience. I want to encourage them, but, at the same time, be totally honest for what they have ahead of them. I’ve done it, yes, but it wasn’t easy. Well, it was easier in my situation. But for many, coming to Spain “COLD” is something very very different. Unless they have some significant savings or support from the family, it’s difficult to make a living in Spain unless their skillz are special, particular, and desirable in this wonderful country. Short of that, it’s challenging to realize a comfortable life in Spain.

These friends are missed. That’s what happens when you leave or when you’re left behind. That’s nature for ya’! People come and go from one country to the next and back again in order to find the best environment for them. I understand that. Several immediate family members have moved to Europe, Asia, and even Africa in order to find their futures. That’s the world in which we live. I look forward to the next visit to Madrid by Americans and, more specifically, Midwesterners, which may someday visit Spain in order to re-connect to my roots. MadridMan is an Ohio-boy, afterall.

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Feels Like Home When Merchants Know Your Name

Okay. The local merchants don’t really know my name, but they know ME and that’s what counts. How can a foreigner feel any more “at home” than when the merchants, at which the weekly purchases are made, know your face, sometimes predict your orders on habit, and/or stop you on the street when they see you? This is what happens to me here.

In my working-class neighborhood of Madrid we have practically anything you’d want; 3 markets, one independent pollería (chicken-shop), one independent charcutería/carnicería (butcher/beef-shop), umteen bars, several newsstands, and countless barber shops and many of them know me, know what I want, and know what I’m going to order. Doesn’t that make you feel good? It’s like being Norm from the old TV series “Cheers” who walks in, everyone shouts-out his name, and the bartender serves up a beer without waiting for his order. This is what happens to me here and I love it.

For lunch I go to the same bar about twice a month for lunch and an excellent “menú del día” (“menu of the day”) for 8.50€. Javi (“Javier“), at his self-named bar, greets me with a handshake, sits me down, addresses me affectionately as “Chaval” (“youngster) and “Campeón” (“champion”) and puts the “vino con casera” (“wine with semi-sweetened carbonated water”) on the table before I have to order it. And while I often change-up my lunch order, I nearly always have the same dessert, the “natillas” (whipped custard) and he confirms that this is what I’d like. He’s even confided in me as to some personal problems he’s been having lately. I’ve seen Javi on the street and he always stops to chat. A nice guy, about my age, I’d say.

My barber, whose name I still don’t know after 6-years of having my hair cut at his “peluquería“, calls me “Joven” (“young one”) and I still call him “Maestro” – as if he was a conductor of the symphony which is my hair, awaiting his stylish expertise. HA! AS IF one could screw up my SHORT haircut! He talks some politics, some social norms, and some family topics while throwing in some “¿Y cómo lo hacen en tu país?” (“And how do they do it in your country?”) questions. I’m CERTAIN I’m the ONLY “yanqui” (yankee) patronizing his barber shop and I like it that way. He’s knows I’m always good for a different perspective and a good tip. He has seen me awaiting my turn at the ATM and has startled me from behind to shock me, obviously glad for the encounter. He’s a good guy, self-employed, used to wear a pony-tail, and still smokes in his shop although he knows the law prohibits it. Hey, it’s HIS barber-shop!

The Chicken Lady” – as I call her because I don’t know her name – of the “pollería” is so nice, also about my age or a little older, is unusually redheaded, and also predicts my order – although I try to change things up so as to not bore those Spaniards eating my weekend spreads. She’s so nice, so patient with everyone, chats with all the old women which come in – not to shop but to sit on the bench and talk about the world, waves at me as I pass by the window of her shop and shouts-out an “¡Hasta luego!” Once a month I return to her the cardboard, half-dozen egg cartons which come with the egg purchases at her shop and I can only imagine she’s grateful. Surely, I’m the only one who does this.

Blanca, the neighborhood’s gruff magazine/newspaper-shop owner has been in business for at least 20-years and I only know her by name because it’s HER name which adorns the awnings of the establishment. The place isn’t particularly dust-free, the often-sleeping dog is there on his padded chair keeping her company, the canary-in-its-cage is tweeting a lovely song, and there’s always someone sharing political views with her whenever I go in. She knows what I want and I always have the exact change at the ready. Not the friendliest person I’ve known but she’s hard-working and trustworthy.

Susana, the once-teller-now-manager at the local LaCaixa bank, always has a smile for me, knows me by name, and sometimes calls or emails me with banking opportunities and the like. That’s her job, afterall, but it’s nice to be remembered by name. Again, surely I’m her only American client in this neighborhood so how could she NOT remember me?!? She sometimes calls me back to her desk to discuss things, “How are things going?”, etcetera. Sometimes I think she’s interested in me but she’s probably like that with all her clients, male or female. She’s very nice and I can see she’s very comfortable with me, someone (a little) older than her, somewhat professional-yet-independent, and on and on…

Luís and son, the guys which run the neighborhood’s only independent meat shop (“charcutería/carnicería”) outside of the markets, are probably the most charismatic of the merchants. They really know how to work the crowd, ask about family, remember details about the clients’ lives, and always have a joke or a laugh or a positive disposition. The son, about 29 years old, always asks about the goings-on in the USA, the weather, the politics, the current news about the USA (and there’s a lot of it, as you all know!). The shop was previously owned/operated by Luis’ father in the same location so they’re now going on 3-generations and seemingly doing well.

Fortunately – and unusually, we have THREE markets in my neighborhood. One is recently re-opened which I never visit, one is considered the “Mercado de los Ricos” (“the rich-person’s market”) and the other is considered the “Mercado de los Pobres” (“the poor person’s market”) – simply because of their level in service and product quality. I visit the last 2 markets which, are virtually facing each other across the same street. In the “Mercado de los Pobres” I go to the same “pescadería” and order the SAME thing, the “langostinos” (big shrimp!), usually on Fridays, and they simply ask me – while leaning over the “langostinos“, “How much?” They know what I’m there for. Across the way from the “pescadería” I go for the same thing, the “salami con hierbas finas” – the salami laced with “fine herbs and spices”. Yum. Man, that stuff is GOOOOOD!!!! They guy, and older gentleman, knows me well and then always mentions that they have creamy Galician “Tetilla” cheese onhand. Sometimes I get it and sometimes I don’t – but it’s always good.

As mentioned, practically across the street from the “Mercado de los Ricos” (“the rich-person’s market”) is the “Mercado de los Pobres” (“the poor person’s market”). HERE is where I buy my high-quality fish and high-quality “embutidos” (“sausages”).  “My guy”, they guy in the back corner, knows me by face, often “gifts” me a bottle of wine, olive oil, or other gifty, presumably because I’m such a good customer. The fact is, what he sells is on the expensive side – more expensive than at other shops, but it’s also a much higher quality, too. It’s here where I buy my “jamón de bellota” (highest quality acorn-fed hams, sliced paper-thin) or “jamón de jabugo“. I rarely buy more than 300 kilograms which can run 25-30 Euros, but this stuff practically melts in your mouth. This is a typical Friday night dinner, along with some good “queso Manchego” – cured cheese, and an even better bottle of Spanish red wine.

All of the above are SPANISH proprietors. Throughout Spain and Madrid you’re seeing more and more foreigners working these stands and businesses. But in the neighborhood shops, like in mine, they largely remain owned and operated by the same Spanish owners. I’m not sure why I’m happy about this. Afterall, the world IS a melting-pot, but I also consider myself a bit of a purist when it comes to Spanish-owned-and-operated businesses.

El Frutero“, the fruit shop next door, is owned and operated by Artur, a Peruvian guy about 35-years old, super nice and knows my Spanish family by name – although he hasn’t grasped my own name – and it’s me who does all the shopping. He’s from Lima, Peru and has his young son toddling around the shop when he’s not in daycare. Artur is like the neighborhood’s go-to-guy. He knows everyone and, since he’s often seen standing on the stoop of his shop, talks with everyone, too. When you have a problem or have locked yourself out of your building, go see Artur. He not only sells fruit but also Latin American/Peruvian goods like Inka-Cola, beans from his country, and other food-stuffs. His daughter, whom sometimes tends the fruit-shop, lives in my building and could be a super-model. ¡Guapísima!

El Chino“, or in this case, “La China“, which operates the convenience store across the street, couldn’t be nicer – even though she can only speak 5 or 6 words of Spanish. Their shop is practically open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and they have everything that a convenience store should have. I’m pretty certain they don’t have a license to sell alcohol, but they do. I’m pretty certain they don’t have a license to sell single tobacco cigarettes, but they do. But the woman – whom we’ve “saved” several times from ne’er-do-wells, is forever appreciative, giving us free chocolate, free bread, and even tried to give me free milk the other day, but I insisted on paying. The common conceptions of “Los Chinos” is that they charge double for everything and never give anything away. Okay, yes, they do charge double because you have to pay for convenience, and they’ve given me freebies countless times. She always waves at me from her door while I’m waiting for the bus, shouting, “¡Hola, amigo! ¡Muy bueno!”, while giving me the “thumbs-up” sign and a big, nearly-toothless grin. What a sweety. I feel sorry for her for working such long hours, essentially living to work – instead of the Spanish mantra, “Work to live”.

Apart from the local merchants you have your own neighbors. And I’m not talking just about the people whom live in the same building as you, but also those which live in the adjacent buildings, in the same neighborhood. Pilar and Felipe come to mind. They’re an elderly couple in their early 80’s living on the ground floor of a flat they’d probably bought 60 years ago just down the street from me. I often run into them taking their afternoon/evening walk. She’s blind in one eye and goes to a daycare for the elderly. He drivers her there everyday, does the shopping, and I often see him at the local bar at lunchtime. The two of them insist on handshakes (him) and two-kisses (her) upon seeing them on the street. Such a beautiful couple. It’s sad to consider the inevitable.

Life-in-Madrid essentially consists of the relationships you have with your Spanish family (if applicable), your Spanish (and non-Spanish) friends, your Spanish (and non-Spanish) neighbors, and the merchants of your neighborhood – with whom you interact nearly daily. Nurture that and you can’t be anything but happy living in Spain. I know I am!

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Madrid Airport Express Shuttle Bus

Madrid’s Airport Express Shuttle Bus has been in operation for over a year and is an easy alternative – for many – to taxis, “cercanías” regional trains, and even the metro for getting into downtown Madrid cheaply and quickly.

MadridTours with MadridMan Madrid ToursThe 24-hour bus takes you to/from the Plaza de Cibeles or Atocha Train Station from/to Madrid Barajas Airport Terminals 1 & 2, 3, and to the new Terminal 4, for 5 Euros (update note: price raised from 2 Euros to 5 Euros on 1 May 2012) each way and takes 35-40 minutes.


  • 7-days a week
  • 6am-11:30pm: start/end-line downtown is Atocha train station
  • 11:55pm-5:35am: start/end line downtown is Plaza de Cibeles
  • 6am-11:30pm: every 15-20 minutes
  • 11:30pm-6am: every 35 minutes

I’ve taken the bus a couple times since it opened and found it to be efficient, fast, somewhat comfortable, pretty convenient, and definitely cheap. Last Sunday I took it from the Madrid Barajas T4 terminal to Atocha in mid-afternoon. It was easy to find outside of “Llegadas” (arrivals) – outside the baggage claim area for arriving passengers – following the signs for “BUS” and finding the big yellow and white sign for Exprés Aeropuerto/Airport Express. Outside of Terminal 1 & 2, it’s also outside the baggage claim area for arriving passengers, exiting the terminal to the outside, turning right, and going nearly to the far end, locating the yellow Exprés Aeropuerto/Airport Express sign and queue-up (get in line) for the next bus.

The buses themselves have 27 seats. This may not sound like a lot, but there’s also some standing space in the middle and 4-luggage racks plus below-rack space for stowing luggage in the front half of the bus. The shuttle buses are modern, with air-conditioning, heat, and also equipped with free Wi-Fi Internet, although I’ve had trouble connecting on more than one occasion.

Sometimes the buses are nearly empty and sometimes they’re very full. Just depends on your luck, the hour of the day, and whether arriving flights coincide or not. I find that it’s best to be near the front of the line to get the shuttle bus either to downtown or to the airport. This way you’re assured space on the luggage racks and maybe a seat, too. If you find yourself right at the end of the line, you may consider waiting for the next bus in order to be first in line. Otherwise, you’ll be standing on a crowded bus with your luggage between your legs.

The “comfort” in using the 5€ (note-update: price raised from 2-to-5€ on 1 May 2012) Madrid “Exprés Aeropuerto” is that you can board the bus right outside the terminal, very near your luggage claim area, and it’ll take you downtown – but not to your hotel, and CHEAPer at 5€. Getting a taxi is more convenient, faster (20minutes) and more convenient, makes no stops along the way, and takes you directly to your hotel – but also costs 25€-30€ from the airport to Atocha Train Station, for example, with the supplement included.

MadridTours with MadridMan Madrid ToursThe bus’ down-side, of course, is that that you still have to get to your hotel upon leaving the Express Bus at Plaza de Cibeles or Atocha Train Station. From there you can walk, take the metro, or hire a taxi to take you the rest of the way. The reverse is true, too. When going TO the airport, you’ll have to make your way from your hotel – with luggage in tow (literally!)- to Plaza de Cibeles or Atocha to catch that bus. This may not be feasible for everyone.

Taking the metro is another popular and cheap option at 4.50€ to 5€, including the 3€ supplement,  (update: price raised from 2.50-to-5.00€ on 1 May 2012) although it takes a little longer, but you can get closer to your hotel this way. You may also have to change metro train lines 2-4 times and carry your luggage up/down stairs to make those metro line changes.

Arriving by plane to Madrid Barajas Airport is exciting enough. But once you’re on that bus heading through downtown, passing the Retiro Park on your left, rounding the majestic Puerta de Alcalá, stopping at the fountain-centered Plaza de Cibeles, and then down the tree-lined boulevard of Paseo del Prado to Atocha train station gets me all-a-flutter just thinking about it – and I live here!!

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Rick Steves Spain 2012 Recommends MadridMan

Rick Steves' SpainImagine my thrill last November in a Columbus, Ohio Barnes & Noble bookstore during my annual USA visit, leafing through the “Rick Steves’ Spain 2012” book which recommended!! He wrote:

“Helpful Website: is run with passion by American [MadridMan] and offers tips on sightseeing, hotels, restaurants and more.”

Respected author and travel guru, specializing in Eurpean Travel, fellow American Rick Steves does, in fact, recommend in his “Rick Steves’ Spain 2012” book. Also, as I gather from his recent Rick Steves Blog, will also list in his upcoming “Rick Steves’ Europe Through The Back Door 2013” edition – out in August 2012.

Rick Steves' Europe Through The Back DoorTrust me, upon reading this in his book I was all a quiver, trembling ever-so-slightly as I jotted down the quote on a piece of scrap paper. I thought, “Rick Steves likes me! He REALLY likes me!” Okay, I’ve never met the man, but I was touched by the recognition. I also have to wonder how he found me in the first place. Sure, I’ve been around since 1996 doing this MadridMan thing, but still, I’m just a guy doing what he loves and not a corporation with a staff of hundreds.

Also, anyone who knows me knows I NEVER-EVER “blow my own horn”, never self-publicize, never promote myself in almost any way apart from the business cards I bought last year – which are now gathering dust in the cupboard. I figure if you do something, anything with passion (and do it semi-well) you’ll get recognized. But this time I couldn’t pass-up the opportunity. has been often recommended in print books by Frommers, Fodors, Lonely Planet, and other travel books over the years – and I thank them all for their appreciation. The one by Rick Steves really does me proud, maybe because he’s like the American Pope of European Travel. Thanks, Rick!!!

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Madrid Christmas 2011, New Years, Magic Kings 2012

Another Spanish holiday season comes to a close. It was nice and I tend to really enjoy Christmastime, no matter where I am. Being in Madrid, Spain makes it especially “exotic”, even after living here for 6-years.

The Christmas lights were the same as always, maybe swapped from one downtown neighborhood/street to another to seem new, but in times of crisis I can understand. I’m not for wasteful spending whether it be in the city’s budget or in my personal life. Who doesn’t like Christmas lights?!

Being in downtown Madrid is really special. The city is abuzz with people, shoppers, children and strollers. Crowds gather around the El Corte Inglés for the annual “Cortylandia” show near the Puerta del Sol. I missed the show, but saw the display. It did seem simpler this year.

The Puerta del Sol Christmas Tree was the same as in the past, what, 5 years, but it looked as fresh as ever. That tall, green structure with the red star on top really calls your attention upon entering the plaza. I did miss the “Belen” or Nativity in the Casa de CorreosComunidad de Madrid building this year, but saw it last year. Not sure if it’d changed or not this year. I’d even say this Christmas was a bit milder in temperature than in past years. No rain, either. (that’s both bad and good)

When living abroad it’s important to participate in local customs. So this year, as every year, I was “a good Spaniard” and bought 2 – 20€ tickets for the “El Gordo” Christmas lottery held on 22 December 2011. While attentive and listening to the hours of children singing-out the lottery numbers (while working), I won absolutely nothing. That’s the way it goes. Last year we’d won like 80 Euros, I think, but I’d invested 120€ in tickets. You do the math on that one.

This year I didn’t plan to attend the “Campanadas” (chimes) in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol at midnight so, instead, I attended the noontime, 31 Decembember 2011 “Ensayo“, or test-run of the midnight’s 12-chimes. The Puerta del Sol was not full, but very busy. Many many people had their 12-grapes at the ready, bottles of Sidra (Asturian cider) could be seen everywhere, and a lot of picture-taking took place. That was pretty cool. I’d never attended an “ensayo” before. I understand – and saw on TV – the other test-run the night before FILLED the plaza to near capacity. I did try to be there for that, but the buses weren’t running on schedule and so I missed it.

New Year’s Eve in the Puerta del Sol was another big affair. This year I spent “Nochevieja” with those whom I care about, watching the TVE1 specials including the José Mota comedy show leading up to the new year. We ate our 12 grapes at midnight – peeled and de-seeded BY ME (my annual job, like it or not. I know, it builds character) – with the 12-chimes of midnight, we all kissed each other on both cheeks, some shed tears of hope and loss, and we all toasted with Catalán Cava from our 50-year old antique champagne glasses passed down through the generation(s).

New Years Day was like any other day, really, but spent with friends and family at the house, all enjoying MadridMan-made-meals. I’d made roasted turkey (a female turkey – juicier, they say, topped with jamón serrano) for the Christmas Eve Dinner – attended by no less than 8 persons and seemed more like a Thanksgiving Day feast than anything – and a roasted chicken on New Years Day.

This year I was “totally bent” on seeing the actual “Cabalgata de Reyes” for myself on the Paseo de la Castellana – and I DID IT!!! I’m so proud of myself. After years of watching on TV, I’d finally ventured downtown and chose a spot one block north of the metro station Rubén Dario, directly on the plaza/glorieta of the statue of Emilio Castelar – a scenic, monumental plaza to say the least. But what a madhouse! I was there to take photos, but could see absolutely nothing!? Why? Not simply for the heads in front of me, but more for the dozens of fold-able ladders parents had brought for their kids to climb in order to see the parade! What little I saw was between bodies and the far-off photos came out fuzzy. When the 3 Kings passed – and seemingly halted, I walked south down the Castellana and had subsequently found better, less congested places to see the Cabalgata de Reyes. NEXT YEAR!! From the Plaza de Colón, I jaunted inward, passing through Chueca and the Plaza de Chueca (great Christmas lights there!!), crossing the Gran Vía, through Puerta del Sol, and finally to the Plaza de Opera – Plaza de Isabel II – where I got my bus home.

The morning before Epiphany, Magic Kings Day, or “El Día de los Reyes Magos”, I’d bought one “Roscón de Reyes” at the local bakery at 7:00am – and there was a line 25-people LONG!!  That afternoon I’d bought another for The Day, and then bought another “just in case”. Good thing we did, too, because we ate them all as people came over for not only breakfast but also for “merienda” on this wonderful Spanish holiday. I spent the morning with an elderly neighbor woman who lives alone and took coffee and the Roscón to share with her for breakfast. She was grateful, to say the least.

While typically the gifts brought by The Magic Kings overnight and opened first thing in the morning on the 6th, this year we opened gifts at the tradition-stopping time of 7:30pm!! Don’t worry, someone got the brunt of that delay. But at least we had it, albeit late, and with lots of gifts wrapped and awaiting their release from under the artificial Christmas Tree and Nativity Scene.

By the end of Sunday, the 7th of January, all the decorations were taken down at home, tree put away, gift wrappings and wine bottles were recycled, and left-overs were on the menu at the MadridMan home. Monday, the 8th, was a day like any other – apart from the scores of people whom had been on holiday/vacation for the previous 2 weeks. That’s gotta hurt.

The year 2012 is a new one, we’re fresh. And while the economist don’t predict this to be a better year from the last, I have hope. At least, they say, Tourism improved and is expected to improve even more in 2012. Let’s cross our fingers and see if we win the lottery. How better to start the New Year than with a New Fortune?!?! Happy New Year, everyone! MadridMan wishes you the best.

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2011 Spain’s Fiesta Nacional, Columbus Day, “El Pilar”

Today is 12 October 2011, a National Holiday in Spain. Every October 12th here is the “Día de la Hispanidad“, also known as “Fiesta Nacional de España” or “Columbus Day”, the day Christopher Columbus discovered The Americas. (hey, didn’t The Vikings already… nah, nevermind…)

Today is also “El Pilar“, one of Spain’s most important Virgin Saints. So if you know anyone named Pilar, or even María – which is short for “María del Pilar”, wish them a Happy Saint’s Day. The custom, in Spain, is for the person with that name to invite (i.e. pay) friends and family to a meal – but those attending are expected to bring gifts. And since today the saint’s day falls on a Wednesday, there’s no “Puente del Pilar” – a long weekend for the holiday – as in other years.

Back to Spain’s MILITARY parade today in Madrid, starting at 10:30am. It starts, oddly enough, at the Atocha train station on the Glorieta de Carlos V and travels north on the Paseo del Prado. At the Plaza Canovas (a.k.a. “Plaza de Neptuno” – the statue/fountain of Neptune) the parade will pause for recognition and ceremony with Spain’s King, Rey Juan Carlos. From there the parade will continue northbound, passing through the Plaza de Cibeles, continuing up the Paseo de Recoletos/Paseo de la Castellana, and finish at the Plaza de Colón.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen this route and direction of Spain’s “Día de la Hispanidad” military parade and have to wonder about the purpose behind it. After much research, I’ve come up with nothing. Any ideas or insights by my readers?

The parade will consist of the usual military personnel marching in step, rifles, tanks and other vehicles,  soldiers on horseback, military jets and prop-planes flying overhead, as well as brigades of military persons from other countries. A small group from the United States has often been represented in these parades, but not lately. Not sure why.

One should be able to watch the parade live online via TVE1, TVE24Horas, and/or even via the TelemadridSAT channel on the MadridMan’s Spain Radio, TV, Music & Movies page.

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Palacio de Cibeles Observation Deck For GREAT Views of Madrid

The Palacio de Cibeles, Madrid’s “new” City Hall, recently opened their 8th floor observation deck, the deck which encircles the iconic clock tower and offers spectacular views of the Plaza de Cibeles and the Calle de Alcalá-Gran Vía split.

UPDATE: Since approximately the beginning of 2013, the price went up from being FREE for 15-minutes to 2 Euros for 30-minutes. The below is my experience as it was then. Check for current hours and other details for your visit.

Oh, and did I mention…. IT’S FREE?!?! Yup. You read that right. FREE! I, too, was surprised. Maybe that’s why they only allow visitors 15-minutes to feverishly snap photos before letting the next batch “on-deck”.

First things, first; the observation deck is only open from 11am to 7pm and closes from 2pm-4pm for lunch. (Yeah, this is Spain, folks. Siesta or not, everyone needs a break) These hours may well change with the change of seasons, too. Not sure if they would let people up-top at 6pm in the dark of winter, but I’ll investigate and, if at all possible, go back for a nighttime visit.

History: The formerly named “Palacio de Comunicaciones” was completed in 1919 and was Madrid’s Main Post Office for about 80-years. Even I remember buying stamps there in the 1990s. The interior was/IS not only enormous but has such beautiful detail and coloring, stained-glass skylights and all!

Main Floor: Upon walking in the old, converted post office’s front door, you’ll be directed to a small room to the right where you’ll have your bags X-rayed. Next, up the stairs to the main floor (listed on the building’s guide as the 2nd floor) of the “CentroCentro“, the “Área Cultural” where you’ll find countless sofas, armchairs, newspapers, and other reading material.

There’s also a couple dozen iPads-under-glass which the visitor can use. (more than half of them didn’t work as far as I could tell) This is also a free Wi-Fi area, but I couldn’t connect using my Smartphone. Maybe I should’ve asked for instructions at the main desk. In the surrounding spaces you’ll see oversized black-and-white photos of the building’s construction as well as video documentaries. There are also super-modern and spacious public restrooms – an important detail for travelers seeking a pit-stop while sight-seeing.

Upper Floors: The upper floors have other visual exposition spaces with large, hung black-and-white photos of the building’s history, construction, all the while appreciating the surrounding architecture.

How To Reach The Observation Deck: Don’t do what I did and go directly up to the entry-point for the observation deck, only to be turned away when asked for my numbered ticket. “No, I’m sorry, you’ll have to get your ticket on the ground floor.” Great.

Step 1) On the main floor of the “CentroCentro” cultural space, acquire your FREE TICKET at the desk with the graphical sign of a hanger hanging above the counter. I know, this looks like a coat-check desk, but it seems it doubles as a ticket-counter. The word “Ticket” isn’t found anywhere. Maybe that’s in the works, I don’t know. I suspect the other desk, the one with the “i” (for “information”) hanging above it, also provides tickets. There, they’ll explain the visitation process, where to go and how long you’ll have on the observation deck. I’m not sure if they speak English, however, but the process is written and framed in English at the desks as well. (see white document photo above)

Step 2) Take the elevator (or walk up) to Floor 6e (I believe the “e” stands for “entreplanta“, which is a “middle floor”). I took the elevator up to the 5th floor and walked up the last way on a beautiful spiral staircase with colorful “azulejos” – painted tiles – on the walls.

Step 3) Wait with the group on Floor 6e until your ticket’s scheduled time. Groups go up every 15-minutes, thus you’ll only have 15-minutes on the observation deck. That’s not a lot of time!

Step 4) After they take your ticket, if you’re able bodied, walk up two flights of glass stairs (88 steps, to be exact) to the 8th floor, the floor with the entrance to the observation deck. If not, you can take the elevator. I walked up the stairs because the small elevator was full of elderly people and I wasn’t willing to waste my 15-minutes waiting in line for it.

Step 5) Now you’re outside on the 8th floor observation deck surrounding the building’s clock tower. What a sight! Just incredible! The observation deck itself is only about 1-meter wide at its narrowest and 2-meters wide at its widest. Here, you truly get 360º views of Madrid – although you have to walk around the clock-tower to see them. I recommend a morning visit so the western horizon is illuminated better. (see photo at right)

Step 6) The attendant will warn you a couple minutes before your “15-minutes of fun” come to an end. As you go down one set of stairs you’ll see the next group coming up another set. From here, Floor 6e, you can either walk down the staircase or take the elevator. I chose the elevator. There are elevators on each side, but they’re so small that only 4 or 5 people can fit comfortably in each one so there may be a line to go down.

Did you enjoy your trip up to the Observation Deck of the Palacio de Cibeles? I sincerely hope so. It’s truly the best 15-minute FREEBIE in Madrid – although it’s the city’s residents who are paying for it, only 1.5 Euros per year for the 126 Million Euros spent for the renovation, maintenance and security of the building. Pocket change!

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Passport Renewal at Madrid’s US Embassy

The other day I had the pleasure of renewing my nearly-expired US Passport at the US Embassy in Madrid on Calle Serrano, 75. And it REALLY was a pleasure! I was surprised how fast, easy, and efficient it was. I’m talking about the passport renewal application process, that is. Now let’s see if it reaches me in a timely fashion.

I first went to the US Embassy’s Website for Passports and Visas. There, you read information about your case in renewing your passport or applying for a new or lost passport. If you answer “yes” to all their questions, you can either download & mail your passport renewal application or you can download, fill-in, and take your application to the US Embassy. Since I was in the hurry, I chose the latter – but not without a bit of confusion. Figures, right?

Upon reading the instructions and then downloading the form DS-82, the form says US Citizens residing in Spain CANNOT use this application form and must first contact the US Embassy for information. Wonderful.

Ah, heck, I’ll just make an appointment and clear this up quickly.” So I click the link to make an appointment and they give you a number of qualifications – all of which you must fulfill in order to make an appointment for Passport Renewals. Oddly enough, at least to me, none of the qualifications were for renewals of an adult passport, seemingly the most common type of renewal, right?

So I called and the busy receptionist picked-up after about 15-rings, but at least I got through at 9am on a Monday morning. They open at 8:30am and tried first then, but without luck. Upon explaining my situation to the Spanish-American receptionist (whom I’ll say was more Spanish than American), that I had Spanish residency and form DS-82 said I had to contact the embassy in order to apply for renewal, she suggested I download the SAME form, DS-82 and then request an appointment online. I told her there was no option for adult renewals on the online appointment page. She guffawed and said, “Oh, I know. That page is so silly. I don’t know why they do that. Anyway, just choose the appointment option for the renewal of a passport for someone under 18 years old.” She even told me I could have the passport photos taken right there at the US Embassy. Cool!

So that’s what I did, I chose the appointment opportunity for the next morning, Tuesday, at 9:30am, and had to print-off and take with me the US Embassy appointment verification document which lists your name, your birth date, phone number, email address, and an appointment ID & passport. I’m all set! Off to the US Embassy, I go, and surprised I wouldn’t have to wait a week or more to see someone!

Filling out the form DS-82 was easy and fast, only 2 pages, not asking any confusing questions, just name, social security number, birthday, address, and a couple more things. I was surprised, however, they asked about “Profession”.

Madrid’s public transportation system (bus+metro) was running particularly smoothly on Tuesday morning. What I calculated to take 45-minutes only took about 30, catching the bus and the metro trains (changing twice) upon arriving at the stops/stations. I love it when that happens! The nearest Madrid metro station to the US Embassy is Rubén Darío, Line 5, on the opposite side/just-west of the Paseo de la Castellana. The US Embassy is on Calle Serrano, 75, one-block east of the Castellana and nearly two-blocks north on the Calle Serrano and in the Barrio de Salamanca – one of Madrid’s poshest, richest neighborhoods. Of course!

Upon arriving at the high-security facility which is the US Embassy in Madrid, Spain, your first point of contact is not with a U.S. Marine or U.S. military person, but a Spanish security guard which asks to see your appointment printout. Verifying that, he sends you inside where another Spanish security guard asks you to empty your pockets and put your bag on the X-Ray conveyor belt and then you, yourself, pass through the X-Ray machine. They keep your bags (and your cellphone as they aren’t allowed inside) and give you a yellow, plastic number to retrieve your bag(s) on your way out. BE SURE YOU TAKE YOUR PASSPORT, DOCUMENTATION, APPLICATIONS, AND WALLET/MONEY WITH YOU INSIDE. Don’t leave your wallet in your bag like I did and have to rush back out to retrieve it. Keep in mind that these two security check point security guards were Spaniards and they don’t speak but a few words in English.

Once past the security checkpoints, you walk up a few stairs and through a door to your first American encounter, the person who checks your appointment and passport and gives you your number-to-be-attended as (s)he sits behind a no-doubt bullet-proof glass barrier. He was pretty nice, young, and buzzed me through the door to the left.

Just inside the door is the general waiting room, much like a Spanish governmental administration building where you have rows of seats and several windows where you are attended. A large LED panel in the center of the room displays the next number to be attended and at which numbered window. There was also a television showing the news with its volume almost too low to hear. Now I don’t recall if the TV station was in English.

There were probably 35 people in the waiting room and I suspected I’d be there for hours even though I had an appointment. Luckily, this wasn’t the case. My number was coming up within two digits so it shouldn’t take long. “BING!” There goes another number and mine would be next. It was at that moment that I noticed someone coming out of the automated photo book in the corner. That’s right! I need photos! But I assumed I would be hand-held by my attendant to take them. That was apparently a mis-conception on my part. So I walked over to examine the photo booth, someone was inside, and saw it took “4 Passport Size Photos for 5 Euros”. There was luckily also a change machine next to the booth. Next, it was my turn for photos and I took my seat in the cabin, looking into the glass panel, had 3 opportunities for photos and then could choose my favorite – that is to say, the one which looked the least horrible at 9am in the morning (baggy, sleepy eyes. Yeah, THIS is how you want to be remembered for the next 10 years!). Boom! Done! I got out while the photos were printing and, “BING!”, my number was up.

Grabbing my folder full of applications, passport, and appointment number, I dashed over to the window where I was face-to-face with, I’m sure, the same woman whom answered the phone when I called for information. She had a little button on her shirt with the Spanish and American flags, but, from her accent, I was sure she was more Spanish than American, probably born in Spain. And here I thought everyone in the US Embassy were US-born/bred employees. Guess not. Maybe only on the back-end people, those which deal with policies and the nitty-gritty of Embassy work. The front-end people, those which deal with the public, surely needed to be perfectly bilingual. There were other “Americans” in the waiting room, but also a lot of international people, too.

As the woman was checking my application I ran back to get my freshly-printed photos, she took them and cut-out one of the four, stapled it to my  application, and gave the rest back to me. Everything was in order. Whew! I told her I would need the Expedited Service as described on the US Embassy website and was prepared to pay more. She said there was no expedited service available and that it should only take 3-weeks. Okay. That’s good. That’s about the amount of time I was hoping to wait had there been expedited service. The woman then explained that the new passport would be delivered to me by messenger service. That is to say, someone would come to my door to deliver my new passport and require my signature to receive it. Hmm.. So what if I’m not home?!

All done within about 12-minutes. She smiled and told me I could then pay my $110/83€ at the cash counter nearby so I thanked her for her time and walked away. There was no one at the cash counter behind glass so I waited and studied the different personal items the cashier had scattered around the desk, bottled water, a tiny stuffed animal, photos of children, the usual desk ornamentation. So there I waited. After about 10-minutes I went back to the woman which assisted me and waved that there was no one at the cash-counter, she apologized and said she probably just stepped out. Okay. Everyone deserves a break. I get that. No problem. 5-more minutes passed and she finally appeared, apologetic, and processed my credit card payment. I thanked her and said goodbye.

On the way out you have to pass through a football-stadium-style turnstile which goes from ceiling to floor. On the other side of that the original Spanish security guard asks for the yellow, plastic number and he retrieves your bag for you, sending you on your merry way.

All told, the entire process was painless apart from the first few anxious moments when reading the US Embassy website, stating that I’d have to “Contact the Embassy if you reside outside of the USA”. But once I called and got the appropriate information, the making of the appointment, the filling out of the application, and the submittal of the application at the US Embassy was a breeze. Now let’s see if it arrives within 3-weeks!

UPDATE: My passport was delivered by messenger exactly 2-weeks after submitting the application. I had to pay the messenger 10 Euros (something they don’t tell you when you apply), but I didn’t mind. They even called the night before to see if I’d be home the next morning and then again 30 minutes before arriving. Woo Hoo!

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Last Day of Summer in Spain 2011

Today is it, August 31st, the last day of Summer for Spaniards. For most students, summer lasts until school starts. But for adults it lasts until you have to go back to work – and in the case of Spaniards, summer ends either on July 31st or August 31st.

We all know that many Europeans take an entire month “holiday” (or, as we in the USA say, “vacation” – the British influences here in Spain have somewhat altered my vocabulary) and Spaniards are no different. To those unemployed Spaniards, however, I’m sure they’d rather be working. But for the working, floods of vacationers will be on Spain’s highways today, clogging the arteries between major cities on their return home.

People will return to the office sporting their enviable tans, new hair-dos, painted nails, and stories of  things they did and saw. Others will have spent a relaxing month in “el pueblo” with family and visiting old friends.

Regardless of how Spaniards spent their summer, on hot beaches or cool northern villages, none of them are happy to be home. No one looks forward to returning to the daily grind and facing daily responsibilities, back to public transportation or constant traffic, standing in long lines, cooking and cleaning. For others, usually the women, they might even be more relaxed back home as they may have been busier on vacation. “Send those kids back to school. Please!” parents will say.

I spent only 2 weeks in a tiny village in northern Spain, in the province of Cantabria, about 45 minutes south of the nearest beach and next to some beautifully green mountains. While the relatively cool temperatures were nice (relative to the heat wave which passed through Madrid while I was gone, that is), I could have done without the humidity and the insects which accompany such lush, green, rural landscapes. Guess I’m a city boy now.

July was quiet in Madrid, but August was even quieter when I was here. That’s nice. What’s not nice is going to your favorite bar or restaurant only to find a “Closed Until 1 September” sign in the door. That’s frustrating. But everyone needs a break and, thinking socially, I’m glad Spain still follows this custom of shutting down for a month or so, totally disconnecting and focusing on family, travel, and even romance – new or old.

Tomorrow’s the day. “BACK TO WORK, SPAIN!”

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Happy Birthday, USA, from an American in Spain!

I awoke this morning and was going about my daily routine when it dawned on me, probably at about 9:30am, “HEY! This is the 4th of July!” For some reason the song “God Bless America” came to mind so I whistled it until I got to the gym.

So…. where are all the American flags? Where are the fireworks? Where are the front page photos of families watching parades down Main Streets? (with floats which pass by every few seconds, mind you! (see previous blog posting))

Oh, right. I live in Spain now. Here, they only tote out the Spanish flags for political speeches and political demonstrations. Otherwise, the flags are likely “in the closet” ’round these parts. You did see many many more of them last summer when Spain won the World Cup – and they even hung around for a good month afterwards but even then they slowly disappeared. This is not to say that Spaniards don’t love their country. They do – albeit with a different perspective. They just don’t care too much about the flag – or flags, in general.

Here, you do get frequent fireworks throughout the year. Here, particularly in the summer, you get fireworks (sometimes) at the midnight starting and the midnight ending any one of the MANY Saint’s Days they have in Spain. And they have A LOT of them! Actually, every day of the year is some Saint’s Day but they typically only pull out the rockets with red glare (or whatever color) for the biggies.

So far I haven’t heard any mention of USA’s National Holiday on Spanish TV or radio news or in print newspapers, but surely it’s there somewhere. Why would SPAIN/Spaniards care if it’s the USA’s birthday anyway? If anything, they’re still grinding their ancestor’s teeth for having lost the entire northern and southern continents several hundred years ago, the last 3 lost being Cuba, Philippines, and Puerto Rico in 1898 (that’s what WikiPedia says, anyway) after losing the Spanish-America War that year. On second thought, SPANIARDS didn’t “lose” all those colonies, their Kings and Queens and governments did. The “loss” of those colonies didn’t affect the Spaniard-on-the-street whatsoever.

Here they celebrate the “Fiesta Nacional de España” (a.k.a “Día de la Hispanidad” – when Columbus “discovered” the Americas)  or “The Spanish National Holiday” on the 12th of October, with a big military parade presided over by the King of Spain himself. This is Spain’s ME-day when lots of flags can be seen along the parade route and usually waved by one proud political party member and not by the other political party members. It’s also the Saint’s day for El Pilar, by the way, which is one of those biggies.

Funny, to me, that “national pride” in Spain is generally only displayed, discussed, and oozed-over by members of one of the Spanish political parties. Members of other political parties tend to believe that your nationality was given to you simply by birth, by fate, something for which you had no control and so there is no reason to be proud of it. It wasn’t something gained through personal acquisition, struggle, or victory in battle.

So maybe that’s the difference here. The Iberian Peninsula has always been the Iberian Peninsula, occupied to some degree by one group or other since the beginning of time. Sure, there were always territory wars, but the ancestors of most Spaniards living here now have been living here for several hundred or maybe even thousands of years. The most recent “occupiers” of Spain were the Moors – which mainly only occupied the southern part of Spain – which were driven out in 1492, the same year Columbus “discovered” the Americas in the name of the Kingdom of Spain. Most “Americans” (immigrants which came over on the boat) have only been living in the USA for the last 100 or 200 years, in some cases. Comparing the two cultures and history can shed some light on why one group is more “nationalistic” than the other.

America. North America, or, more specifically, the United States of America is celebrating their birthday today. Happy Birthday, USA! Oh, how many hot dogs, hamburgers, and scoops of potato salad have I eaten on this day in my life?! ANSWER: MANY! I think I’ll celebrate by simply having a hot dog for dinner and maybe watching the movie “ROCKY”. It doesn’t get any more “American” than that!

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2011 Madrid Gay Pride Parade: Not Just for Gays

When you think of the “Orgullo Gay” parade in Madrid, immediately images of police-officer sunglasses-wearing muscled young men dancing to “It’s Rainin’ Men” from atop a double-decker bus come to mind, right? That’s what I expected, too, after years and years of photos and video from television, magazines & newspapers, and websites of the annual event.

So last night at 8:45pm I wormed my way through the dense crowd onto the very same Gran Vía boulevard at the Plaza de Callao to witness the 2011 Gay Pride Parade in Madrid for myself. There, I thought, I’d have the best vantage point looking up and down the Gran Vía at the curve of the newly pedestrian-ized Plaza de Callao.

Time passed. I’m waiting and looking over the heads of what must have been 2 million others. After about 10 minutes I thought I could see, in the very distance, a small group of banner-carrying parade marchers. 20 minutes later the small band of 25 persons, a few of whom were carrying “the rainbow flag”, or Spain’s (former) Republican flag, or the flag of one of Spain’s political parties, or banners displaying various social statements. Finally they reached my area, passed me, and I turned back to look up the Gran Vía for the next group. Nothing. No marchers in sight.

It was now that it began dawning on me, “If this parade started at 6pm and at 9:15pm – after having been here for 25 minutes and my first-witnessed group of marchers have just passed, HOW MANY (or few) have passed since 6pm – and HOW MANY more will pass in the next 2 hours?” The answers was daunting. Had all these millions of spectators been here since 6pm? For 3 hours? How many marchers have they seen? Had any of those double-decker buses passed by with dancers atop them with blaring music? How long do I have to stand her to see one of those???

I finally came to the realization that the actual parade of the “Gay Pride Experience” was more about general partying than it was about raising social awareness, tolerance & appreciation, support & education, or understanding. Sure, when the few marchers passed by everyone took pictures. But once they were gone – and before they arrived – they were consumed with consuming alcohol (which is fine), chatting with friends, rubbing by one another to reach the next body-less gap in the crowd. Trash was everywhere.

No doubt there were some homosexuals, bisexuals, and transsexuals in the crowd of onlookers, but I’m convinced about 99.99% of those watching the “parade” (or lack thereof), were heterosexuals, out on the town to have a good time with friends and not necessarily there to support alternative lifestyles. And that’s fine, too! Have fun!

So is it the fault of the organizers why one group of marchers seem to pass every friggin’ hour? Was the parade designed to last as long as possible in order to keep the area’s cash-registers whirring with purchases of beer, wine, water, and snacks? Sure, I was only there for 45 minutes so surely I may have missed the best parts before my arrival or after my departure. I couldn’t imagine standing there for another 2 hours to see 2 or 3 more groups of marchers in order to get some photos for this blog. When you think of a “parade” don’t you envision one group following another in caravan fashion? Sure, beat your drums loudly and walk slowly so that everyone can read your message. Fine! Do that! But keep things moving!

While I was standing on the Gran Vía, sweating and waiting, I tried recalling last year’s Gay Pride parade in Madrid and it occurred to me that it was exactly like this year’s! Last year I think I stuck it out for an hour and a half, maybe seeing two groups march by – but no buses and no vehicles of any kind.

The coolest part of the Gay Pride Parade in Madrid for me was NOT the parade itself (if you haven’t gleaned that yet from this blog posting). No. THE COOLEST PART WAS THE PUBLIC URINALS! And when I say PUBLIC, I MEAN PUBLIC! Three years ago I wrote the blog entry, “Peeing in Public“, but THIS was the first time I’d seen those street-side, public-view urinals in Madrid, Spain! How would YOU feel about that, relieving yourself amidst tens of thousands of people – the same people who can see you WHILE you’re relieving yourself! Sure, they can only see your face, back, arms and legs, and they can’t see the important stuff. But still! Man, if you ever had “challenges” peeing at a urinal in the men’s restroom with another “occupant” at your side, how “challenging” would it be to have tens of thousands of people all around you while you’re peeing in plain view?!

That’s kind of a shame, don’tchathink?, that the coolest part of the “Orgullo Gay” parade in Madrid was seeing the urinals. Sad. Actually, I did take time-out to admire more than a few hundred very attractive women along the course of the evening so the evening wasn’t a total loss.

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Madrid Summer Heat: Only the Beginning

I hate the heat. And anyone who knows me knows this to be true. “So why in the heck did you move to Madrid?” people always ask me. The short answer is that I love it here. I love Spain. And I can put up with 3 months of hellish conditions for 9 months of otherwise wonderful weather.

Today, they say, it got up to 97ºF/36ºC. That’s pretty darn hot. But it truly is a dry heat – and I say that without smirking. The worst hours of the day, at least in Madrid, are from about 4pm to 8pm. Before and after that it’s pretty much bearable indoors. Sure, you sweat hauling heavy bags of groceries 5 blocks – and then up 5 flights of stairs, but those tasks are best done early in the day. It’s funny seeing hoards of people on the shady side of the street while the sunny-side is totally abandoned.  These people ain’t dumb!

Someone told me recently that the gym they patronize seemingly doesn’t believe in air conditioning as it’s bad for your health, exercising in cool air. Another person told me that a Spaniard told them that one shouldn’t use a fan while sleeping because your bones will freeze and you’ll die. Others have told me me they never turn on their air conditioning (if they have it), even on the hottest days, because they don’t want to catch a cold. And another, and this is a goody, they say you should always put a blanket over your mid-section while taking an after-lunch siesta in order to aid digestion. If you forget this mid-section cover-up, you might have stomach  or intestinal problems later. These are just a few of the “old wives tales” I hear constantly. But even “old wives tales” have a grain of truth, don’t they?

How many times have I gone to the cinema here in Madrid only to have to complain to the manager/clerk about it being too hot? Okay, that only happened twice, but it happened. TWICE! You won’t likely find a U.S. cinema with warmer than sub-arctic temperatures. Why is that?

I think all this goes back to those “old wives tales” which are still generally accepted in Spanish culture. The uncomfortable truth is air conditioners are terrible on the environment, which is why I don’t like to use them at home unless absolutely necessary. Otherwise, I use fans.

And unlike in other countries, a very few Spanish homes have central air conditioning, except for the most modern. Where I live there are TWO air conditioning units, one in the living room and one in the computer room – none in the bedroom. These units are really intended to cool just these rooms and not the entire house. Why in the world would you want to air condition the bathroom, kitchen, or hall? Okay, I’m with you, I would truly rather have the entire house at a comfortable 72ºF all year around, but that doesn’t work here.

Here, it’s all about fresh air. Are you surprised to hear that nearly all hotel, hospital, and office building windows, even in high-rises, can be opened? Okay, MAYBE it’s not so much about “fresh air” as it is/WAS about allowing cigarette smoke to escape the premises. But now that you can’t smoke in any public spaces maybe those construction guidelines will change with time. Who knows.

More and more stores, restaurants, and even gyms are turning down the heat and turning UP the cool, particularly when the entity is in the business of making money – and a lot of it. The chain stores always have the air conditioning turn on, even with their street-side doors wide open, blowing cold air onto the overheated bare legs of passers-by. The smaller, individually-owned stores like newspaper shops, convenient stores, and even some of the neighborhood markets don’t use A/C – or if they do, you can barely notice.

Many Spaniards return from a summer holiday in the USA, say to New York City, and complain how everything, every place there is TOO cold. That’s probably true, but there’s nothing better than walking in from a sun-baked, asphalt parking lots into a cold mall or restaurant “They say” those sudden, extreme changes in temperature are what causes summertime colds and flu. Oh, I don’t know. An old wives tale, maybe?? But we, in the USA, do over-do it when it comes to the air conditioning.

My first visit to Europe was in September 1993, traveling through Italy, Switzerland, and Belgium. I don’t recall if they had/used air conditioning there much then (and it was HOT in Italy), but I do recall making jokes about how the soft drinks and beer were served at, what we joking called, “Euro Cool” temperatures. Luckily, Spanish beer are always served ice-cold and the soft drinks are almost always served with ice-cubes.

So…. summer JUST started. Wonderful. (ugh) That means I’ve got another 3 months of sweat-moist desk chairs, morning and nighttime showers, lots of laundry, and constant patting of the forehead with one of my many cloth handkerchiefs (which I only use for “patting” and never for “blowing”).

It’s nearly 7pm. Another hour and I’ll turn off the A/C and stick the box-fan in the window for the night. Hope my bones don’t freeze.

For your further reading enjoyment – or distraction, take a look at the blog entries, “MadridMan is a Hot Body!“,  written in October, 2007, and “95º and Vinyl Seat Covers“, written in August 2009.

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Swan Lake Ballet at Teatro Real Madrid

Front row, near center, second level is from where I witnessed probably the world’s best known ballet, “Swan Lake“, at Madrid’s Teatro Real last night. In Spanish, it’s called “El Lago de los Cisnes” and was performed by the Russian ballet group, Novosibirsk.

I’d never seen this performance before in my life, only segments on TV, and it did not disappoint. Captivating, to say the least. There were times that I was near tears. It sounds silly, I know, but it truly was emotional, so perfectly tippy-toe danced, and the accompanying orchestra played well, too, in its pit – into which we had a perfect view.

It would be foolish of me to profess expertise in ballet or orchestra music, but seeing “Swan Lake” for myself was an experience I won’t soon forget. Surely, 26 white-tutu-wearing ballerinas had never danced so well in Madrid before. The 3 different stage sets were enormous and appeared to be works-of-art in and of themselves.

Acts 1 & 2 lasted 75 minutes, then a 25 minute break, and acts 3 & 4 lasted 60 minutes. The Ballet started promptly at 8pm and finished at 10:40pm.

Since we arrived 35 minutes early, we took a lazy stroll through the “salas” (halls & rooms) of Madrid’s Opera House on its southern side, starting at the 4-story-high main entrance on the western Plaza de Oriente side and walking to the Restaurante Teatro Real on the eastern, Plaza de Isabel II side. You’d think you were in the Royal Palace itself! Photos are NECESSARY in the halls and restaurant, but not (really) permitted in the main entrance or in the theater itself. In the latter, the attendants will quickly, although nicely, wag a finger if they see you holding up a camera.

As I said, the mid-point break lasted 25 minutes. People could go out onto the large, wide terrace of the Teatro Real’s west side, overlooking the Plaza de Oriente and the Palacio Real/Royal Palace, or go to the Restaurante Teatro Real. Since, ahem, I’d been out on the terrace on previous visits to Madrid’s Royal Theater, this time we went to the restaurant, arriving quickly after the end of the first half of the night’s stunning performance.

So WHAT do people do during the break at the opera or ballet?? Answer: They typically have a glass of champagne or, in Spain, its “Cava“, Spanish sparkling white wine, and maybe something to eat. We did both; two flutes of cava and two large “canapés“, one of tortilla de patata and another of crab (read: surimi), both served on toast, and all enjoyed with a window-side table view of the freshly-renovated & pedestrian Plaza de Isabel II at near-sunset. Could this evening get any more romantic?! PUH-LEASE!

Swan Lake’s second half was as entertaining as the first and we were sad to see it end. But it did, of course, and we left Madrid’s Teatro Real to the still-warm and buzzing streets surrounding “Opera” and the Royal Palace of Madrid, Spain – my home. Sometimes I truly feel I’m living a charmed life.


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Puerta del Sol Madrid Demonstrations, Elections 2011


Image by UStream Channel MotionLook

Politics & religion are two issues they say never to discuss when traveling abroad as they’ll only cause problems. Discussion and debate, while necessary, is also exhaustive and requires effort and patience. The tens of thousands of people in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol are there for political reasons but also to raise awareness of a number of issues – to be discussed below.

How would you feel if you had a bank mortgage on your house and lost your job because of employment cutbacks due to the worldwide economic crisis? How would you pay your mortgage? Worse would be if you lost your job, couldn’t pay your mortgage, AND lost your house to the bank, right? Sure. Well, it gets worse. In Spain, even after the bank takes your house you must continue to pay until the end of the terms of the mortgage – AND be denied any future mortgage requests because of it. If this happens to you when you’re 25 or 30 or 40 years old you can pretty much forget your future.

The above is what happens – and IS happening – in Spain and this is just one of many reasons why tens of thousands of (mostly) young people have been demonstrating nonstop in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol – and dozens of plazas in Spain – since the 15th of May. They’re fed up. And not only with this, but also with political corruption of the top tier parties, banks, and unemployment. Add all this together and you have a generation with a very unstable future. Those families/people with influence and money will never have problems with the above and so, clearly, those people tend to belong to the more affluent political parties. And those same people with money aren’t usually those whom are demonstrating around Spain. It’s always been like that. The rich never protest. The rich stay rich and the poor stay poor – so that the rich can stay rich. That’s survival of the fittest, right? Yes, but when you have no chance in the first place because the leaders you trust are selling-you-out, it’s hard to survive.

It’s true, the group of people demonstrating in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and around Spain are part of the left-of-center political parties. We can’t deny that. But just because of that we shouldn’t turn our back on them – as would be the nature of many right-thinking nations of the world. 10 years ago I would’ve read that and essentially stopped reading, stopped caring, and presume “Those socialists will never learn. Their political views got them in this mess.” Clearly, to anyone who thinks clearly, can see that “socialism” (such as modern socialism goes – which is not much further left than USA’s Democratic Party) is not to blame here. It IS the entire system which has broken down. The WORLD’S economic ills have made a bad situation much much worse, politicians and banks making back-room deals and gambling with the futures of their citizens.

How would you like it if you lost your job? If you were lucky enough to have/keep your job, how would you like it if your wage (which is ALREADY among the lowest in Europe) was cut while still paying high income taxes? (Spain pays slightly less in income tax than Switzerland!!)

Today, Sunday, is when Spain votes in local and regional elections – but not for president. That’s next year and it in itself will be yet another slap in the face. When things are bad, people want change, no matter what that change will be. So Spain votes on Sundays. What a great idea to have voting on a weekend when everyone can attend – not like in other countries which do so on a, say, Tuesday, forcing low voter turnout because they can’t leave work. So today people voted – OR DIDN’T. Many of those demonstrating say they’ll either NOT vote – as a way of punishing their party – or vote for one of the dozens of tiny political parties which never get more than a few thousands votes during normal elections.

This year, the elections are anything but “normal”. This year we will see the PSOE (Socialist Party) take a bare-knuckle beating, allowing PP (Partido Popular – conservative party) to win by a much greater margin than usual. They’ll be happy, of course, as they have few worries in this world anyway. They’re the ones with all the money & influence, afterall. But many working class people vote PP too because of their conservative views too. This is totally understandable and I don’t blame them for this. To each his/her own.

It would also seem that any group of people who can front the application fee can claim to be a political party. It’s all about freedom and choice here in Spain, something I really like. Everyone knows that in the USA there are essentially TWO political parties; Democrats & Republicans. Some would argue there are three parties, including the Independent Party – and maybe a fourth being the Green Party. But the top two parties gain like 96% of the total votes. This year in Spain’s local/regional elections there are about 20 political parties all elbowing for your attention. But unlike in the USA, the top two parties won’t gain 96% of the total votes. Here you have a couple FAR right-wing parties with the Francoist term “La Falange” in them. Scary. There are also a couple FAR left-wing parties with the term “Communist” in them. Also kind of scary to my American mind. Funny (OR NOT!) how we Americans, in general, are more accepting of a right-wing point of view than a left-wing point of view. It takes years and generations to formulate a perception, whatever it may be. In Spain, a left-wing (or even communist) point of view is totally normal and acceptable. In the USA, you get yourself labeled a communist and you’ll have your house firebombed within a week or, at the very least, shunned by society.

Also as in the USA, the Spanish media must allow an equal amount of TV-time to all parties involved in elections. So imagine the block of time for the one-after-another campaign commercials! That’s where you really learn of the existence of these people.

The “political party” which makes me scratch my head more than the others is the “Partido Pirata” – whose election platform promises to (fight to) allow everyone to legally download copyrighted music, movies, software, anything via the Internet without fear of repercussions. Wait, isn’t that commonly, casually, and proudly done in Spain already??

In the next hour or so we’ll all have the results of the local and regional elections in Spain. Once the votes are counted and political positions acquired/retained/lost, will Madrid’s Puerta del Sol return to its normal state? Time will certainly tell. The demonstrators swore they’d stay from the 15th of May until Election Day – today. Just now the “La Asamblea General de Acampada Sol” says they’ll stay until Sunday, 29 May. Whatever happens, history has been made. At this point it’s not clear if elected officials will heed the wants of those demonstrating or not. I tend to think not. But at the very least, some of those young people peacefully voicing demands will one day hold political office themselves. Will they take their youthful opinions with them or will they sell-out too?

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2011 San Isidro Festival in Madrid

Another Fiesta de San Isidro has come and gone and was mostly a success. This is, by far, my favorite Madrid festival. It is, afterall, a celebration of Madrid’s Patron Saint, San Isidro Labrador, and lasted from 11 May to 15 May 2011. The Fería de San Isidro, Madrid’s monthlong bullfight festival, started on the 10th of May. This year the 15th fell on a Sunday and the weather was perfect. We were lucky.

Basically, concerts in “Las Vistillas” and the “Jardines de Sabatini” were scheduled as well as a wonderful “Noches de Fuego” fire display along Madrid’s Río Manzanares, eating “rosquillas“, all capped off with traditional costumed “Chulapas” & “Chulapos” dancing “El Chotis” in the Pradera de San Isidro. VERY “Castizo“!!!

FOOD: I started “celebrating” on Friday the 13th, going to downtown Madrid, passing through the Plaza Mayor and settling on “Taberna El Madroño” for lunch. “El Madroño” is quickly becoming my favorite downtown lunch establishment, located in the Plaza de Puerta Cerrada on the Calle de Segovia, just south of the Plaza Mayor. Here, you can enjoy a wonderful lunchtime “Menú del Día” for just 9€ – either inside OR on the terraza, same price, and the food is good and abundant. The wait-staff is nearly totally Spanish and the wide, off-street (and awning-covered) terraza is very comfortable too. I chose and ordered the spaghetti and shrimp (oh, it was SOOOO goooood!!!) for a 1st course and the 2 fried eggs over fried potatoes with “pisto” for the second course.  To drink, I chose the (carafe of) red wine with fizzy water (“Casera“). While dessert is included in the 9€ price, I was permitted to substitute a coffee instead – as I had a lot of walking yet to do. At the end, the house invited me to a free edible chocolate-coated shot-glass of licor de hierbas. Yum. It was all good and all filling. Sure, there were a number of tourists having lunch there but also a number of Spaniards too. A good sign.

"Taberna El Madroño" en Madrid

Full, happy, and not-so-ready to hit-the-bricks, I paid the bill and headed to the Colegiata de San Isidro – or, a.k.a., San Isidro Church, the church of the two bell towers you see through one of the south-facing arches of the Plaza Mayor. It was closed, not surprisingly, as they were preparing for their procession on Sunday, but the school part was open and full of uniform-wearing kids. I didn’t go in, but did take a moment to admire the church, built in 1664, for which San Isidro Labrador was named. Until Madrid’s Cathedral, “La Almudena” (next to the Royal Palace), was completed in 1993, the Colegiata de San Isidro served as the city’s cathedral.

From here, passed through La Latina and over to Las Vistillas, the picturesque area next to the long “Viaducto” bridge and with wonderful views of the “river valley” below as well as the Casa de Campo. Here is the venue of a number of concerts and traditional dances for San Isidro. Since I was early, they were only still setting up the stage and nothing was going on.

Next, I walked past the enormous church, San Francisco El Grande and to the Puerta de Toledo, down Paseo de Pontones, and crossing the river bride “Puente de San Isidro” (next to the Estadio de Vicente Calderón – home of Atlético de Madrid football team) to the hill leading up to the Pradera de San Isidro.

It was sunny and warm, mostly clear skies and surprisingly few people in the Pradera at this hour although all the “chiringuitos” (bars/restaurants) and game stalls had been constructed and open for busines. Arriving first at the Ermita de San Isidro Labrador, the tiny church named for an dedicated to Madrid’s Patron Saint, had no line to enter so I took advantage of the opportunity.

What a cute, little church. On Sunday May 15th, the day of San Isidro, the line to enter would be 200+ meters long and slow-moving so I took advantage of the opportunity and walked right in with a handful of Spaniards. It was quiet, rather solemn, and I took a number of photos along with many others.

La Ermita del Santo San Isidro Labrador - 2011 Madrid

On the northern side of the Ermita de San Isidro is the rose garden. To enter here there was a line of about 25 people, all waiting to take/taste the “healing waters” from the spring located there. At the time I arrived, people were permitted to go behind the counter, directly to the spigot & basin and collect their own water. But by the time I left, they closed access and two helpers served those wanting to fill their cups and jugs. After wetting my hand and tasting the water, I stepped back to watch the scene. These were ALL Spaniards waiting in line, no doubt locals to the area and knowing when to find the shortest lines. Many small children were dressed as “Chulapas” and “Chulapos”. The surrounding roses smelled wonderful.

Spring Water at the Ermita del Santo Madrid 2011

I then took advantage of the short lines and bought a dozen “rosquillas” for the weekend, to be eaten for breakfast and for “merienda“.  There are MANY different kinds of “rosquillas” including “las tontas, las listas, las de Santa Clara, las de limon,” and on and on. From here I went home, going uphill, passing the “chiringuitos” and game stands where there were still few people. Sunday, the day of San Isidro, would certainly be a different scene – and it was.

Rosquillas de San Isidro 2011 Madrid

Saturday, the 14th of May, it rained most of the day and so I didn’t go to the Pradera, but I’d hoped to go down to the Río Manzanares that night to enjoy the “Noches de Fuego” (“Fire Nights”)- which I DID!! What a scene! Spectacular.

Noches de Fuego Rio Manzanares Madrid San Isidro 2011

I went down to Madrid’s main river (and ONLY river!), the “Río Manzanares“, at the Puente de Segovia (Segovia Bridge) and saw lights in the river to the north so we walked along the eastern bank with hundreds of others, heading towards the fire lights.

Noches de Fuego Rio Manzanares Madrid San Isidro 2011 flames

Noches de Fuego Rio Manzanares Madrid San Isidro 2011 near-burningAll the while I’m thinking to myself, “You would NEVER EVER see anything like this in the United States“. There were open flame EVERYWHERE, not just in the river itself, but also pots-of-fire long the banks and river barriers, fire sculptures, and other fire-related displays. In a way, I’m happy “we Spaniards” have the freedom to have such thins without fear. But my American Psyche says, “This is a lawsuit just waiting to happen!”

Besides being a cool night (from ) 9:30pm to midnight, it was also very very windy. A few wind gusts whipped the flames to worrisome heights. So many were having their photos taken next to the pots of fire and, more than once, the flame came dangerously close to the person standing next to it. My fear was more that someone with long hair, a long, flowing dress, or curious children would be burned by the flames within reach. But I never heard or saw anything like that. There were some close-calls, however. It was a beautiful night, made even better by the full moon and the number of people enjoying such an unusual event. What’s next?  “PULPO” (octopus)  & Ribera white wine for dinner at 11:30pm at the Mesón A Ría de Noia – my favorite pulpo-place, not far from the Puente de Segovia.

Sunday: El Día de San Isidro

El Chotis Dance Chulapas Chulapos San Isidro 2011 Madrid

Perfect. JUST perfect. The day, the weather couldn’t have been better. I woke up early and headed to the nearby Pradera de San Isidro at about 10:30am. It was cool with clear skies. HOW MANY YEARS had this day been unusually hot?! Not this year. I started at the bottom of the Pradera de San Isidro and started uphill – slowly. This is a steep hill. On my right I passed numerous people waiting in line to drink the waters and another line to enter the Ermita del Santo and I was SO happy I’d done this on Friday with essentially no waiting. Sure, I guess the thing is to do this ON the Día de San Isidro, but fine.

I reach the Ermita del Santo on my right and the stands selling “Rosquillas” on my left. HERE is where the crowds begin and HERE is where groups of dance troupes perform on the street, all dressed as “Chulapas” and “Chulapos“, dancing “El Chotis” and “Pasodobles” to recorded music. Most of these troupes represent certain “peñas” or clubs which perform freely on the streets at events like this. They are such much fun to watch, so perfectly dressed, and appear to enjoy themselves dancing as well as posing for photos.

The little girls and boys dressed up in their traditional costumes is the best part of all. They’re just adorable!!! To be clear, the dressing-up as “chulapas” and “chulapos” seems to be something mainly done by older folks or for the very little ones (by their parents) – but you see few young people in their 20s or 30s dressed like this unless their parents are part of one of these clubs.

The number of people attending Mass at noon had to reach a thousand. Wow. A LOT of people, all seated in the sun – but luckily not too warm. Next to the seating area was a LONG line of people waiting to receive their free “gorra de chulapo” (chulapo hat) or abanico (fan) for women to keep them cool, compliments of one or another society.

Catholic Mass San Isidro 2011 Madrid

It was about 1pm when I left for home, passing the dozens of “chiringuitos” lining the uphill street towards the concert stage, all emitting a mix of smells which was – different. Several enormous paellas were being prepared for the lunchtime crowd and legs of lamb were being boiled.

Someone told me, a Spaniard, that the San Isidro event was only for tourists and foreigners. I found this to be totally false. The vast majority of those I saw/heard in the Pradera de San Isidro as well as along the river were, BY FAR, Spaniards.

Until next year!

Also read all year’s accounts of the San Isidro Festival in Madrid with lots of information, insights, photos and videos:

San Isidro 2013, San Isidro 2012, San Isidro 2011, San Isidro 2010, San Isidro 2009, San Isidro 2008

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