Sunday, October 29, 2006

Easy like Sunday morning

The deluge is over. Madrid is back to its normal sunny self, at least for the time being. The weekend has been gorgeous and the Madrileños are out in full force, doing what they love best: getting dressed and having a drink at one of the hundreds of terrazas in the city. Families with hordes of children dressed in the cutest Spanish kids' clothes, couples young and old, singles with a dog or a book or a paper. They're having a beer or a clara or a café con leche, accompanied by the ubquitous plate of patatas fritas. It's Sunday--what else is there to do?

On Sundays, Spain virtually shuts down. Generally the only businesses open are bars and restaurants, bakeries, and pharmacies. You can find convenience stores open in the big cities. So, what to do? Eat and drink, of course. Sit in a bar or a terraza, people watching, being social. Pasear with your new baby in his 800-euro stroller, stopping every hundred meters or so when someone wants to ogle your adorable addition to the world. Play tennis, go running, clean the house, do laundry. More or less typical weekend things, with a Spanish flair.

I spent Sunday morning running a race--the second annual Retiro District 10K. I did it last year, too, but under notably different circumstances. I'd been unable to sign-up because they'd capped it at 2,000 runners. But out in a bar the night before the race a friend suggested that what the hell? We'd run it anyway, just without numbers. And we did, after sleeping about four hours. Well, this year I made sure to sign up early and go to bed at a reasonable hour. No biggie that I signed up, though. I arrived to pick up my timing chip on race day, and they apologetically informed us that the chips for race numbers 1300 and up had been stolen. Huh? Yes, it's true. So we ran without chips and lined up after finishing to report our times to a woman with pen and paper. No problem.

My main problem with races here is post-race. Maybe I got spoiled running all those New York Road Runner races in Central Park, which run like clockwork and dependably feature huge tables of water and some sort of food just after crossing the finish line. Lamentably, at none of the four races I've run here has food played a role for we poor hungry runners. But on several occasions you could cross the finish and drink a Coke right away! You had to wait in a long line for your goodie bag with one puny bottle of water. When I cross the finish, I want to gulp down several cups of water in quick sucession. I don't want a Coke, or a Nestea, or whatever sugary drink is sponsoring the race. And I definitely don't want to wait fifteen minutes in line to get the tiny bit of water that's in my race bag. Why does Coca-Cola sponsor the races I've run in Madrid? Where are the bananas, apples, and bagels for chrissake!?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Concrete schoolyard

Recess is a whirling chaos. On the "patio," the concrete schoolyard ubiquitous in Madrid, children are throwing themselves at each other, down the slide in the tiny playset, or on the ground, as is the case with the majority of the three-year olds who waddle around like tiny penguins with snotty noses and pint-size clothing. Dramas are acted out daily on the school playground, complete with accusations, tears, and denials.

I never went to school in the center of a city (well, until college in New York), so I spent elementary school on expansive playgrounds with fields, lots of play equipment, and serious amounts of space to chase boys.

Here in Madrid, everything is confined to a smaller space, and tensions run high on the concrete schoolyard. The seven-year old second graders are the big kids, towering over the likes of the pre-school children, concerned with scoring a goal at all cost and hardly noticing if they knock over one of the waddlers or send a ball flying at the head of one the teachers who has recess duty. The first graders were five-year olds last year, and still waver between pre-school immaturity and joining the big kids' game. So they dangle from the tiny, overcrowded playset, waiting for the right moment to go for the ball.

The three-year olds still don't know they actually go to school, and stare with mucus-filled faces at the more experienced kids whizzing around them. Or they fall over and entertain each other on the concrete. The four-year olds are too cool for the three-year olds. They know how this playground thing goes, and have the guts to run around with some of the bigger kids and tattle on those who commit offenses. The five-year olds play among themselves--confident in their position as oldest of the infantil classes. They only call the teachers' attention when one of them gets knocked over and all of her friends make sure that she's properly attended.

At 11:30 the bell rings and it's all over. Until tomorrow.

Monday, October 23, 2006


Tonight I'm walking home from the metro after my conversation class with some guys at a security systems company, and I'm totally in another world ... listening to my music, checking out all the store windows that have been so cruelly enticing me in this month in which I am poor poor poor. And, boom! I've run into someone. I whip around, shocked out of my reverie, and remove one headphone just in time to hear "Eres tonta, eh!" (You are stupid!) out of the mouth of the older woman I bumped into. Hey, did you think I was planning to run into you? I may be distracted, but I'm not stupid.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Photographic ramblings

I wanted to explain a little about the photos I've posted because they represent some of the things that I love about Spain.

The top photo is of the Palacio de Cristal (Glass Palace), an exposition space in Retiro, Madrid's most civilized city park. I never get tired of going to see the Palacio because I love how I can see the leaves of the trees through the palace or the different ways the light plays on the panes of glass. Last June, I was in the park with some friends and we stopped by the Palacio to enter the free exhibition called "Breathe--A Woman Mirror" by the Korean artist Kimsooja. The floor of the Palacio was covered in mirrors and all the windows were covered by a translucent film that turned them into a prism. Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to shoot photos inside. We had to take off our footwear and they provided socks so we could wander around atop the mirrors. It was quite the reflective exhibit.

Actually, Retiro was bustling that June weekend. It was the Feria del Libro de Madrid (the Madrid Book Fair), which had hundreds of stalls of Madrid publishing houses and bookstores, author talks, etc. Great fun to wander through--it's two weeks at the end of May/beginning of June every year. It also contained the notable globalizing presence of a Ben and Jerry's stand, which hit the spot.

The other Retiro happening was Yann Arthus-Bertrand's La Tierra Vista Desde Cielo (Earth from Above)-- an outdoor exhibition of enormous photos from around the world, all of which are accompanied by an informative caption. Many photos are taken to illustrate environmental problems or interesting geographic or man-made features. The photos are stunning. Hundreds quotations of statistics about the horrible impact of 21st-century humans on Earth are also part of the exhibit. Many have to do with the United States (i.e. Americans consume 478 times the amount of gasoline as developing nations ... statements in that vein).

Retiro is a wonderful place--both a retreat from Madrid's congested streets and a cultural center. But I feel a little more affinity with the Parque del Oeste, which lines the upper western side of the city center. It's closer to where I live; I run its hills and trails. When I first moved here, I considered Retiro Madrid's Central Park--though it's much much smaller than the New York version--and Parque del Oeste a little more Riverside Park-like (without the river*). It's less civilized in a way, less manicured than Retiro. Parque del Oeste slopes downhill from Moncloa (a huge transport hub) and never sees the kind of human traffic Retiro does, so it somehow feels a bit more personal.

[*A note about rivers: Madrid's biggest defect--in my view--is its lack of any serious body of water. We have a river, it's called the Manzanares, and most people have probably never seen it because it's either so low or the construction workers are busy moving it around in an attempt to enlarge the M-30--Madrid's Beltway. But, the Manzanares has its encanto. It starts way up in the sierra north of Madrid and I've bathed twice in its frigid pools and falls. You'd just never know that from looking at the pathetic thing snaking along the western edge of the city.]

The second photo you see is from my favorite place in Barcelona--el Mercat de la Boqueria. Spain is full of markets, but this is the loveliest I've seen. The stands are mostly standard market products: fruit, vegetables, nuts and dried fruit, seafood, meat, bread and pastries, candy, etc. But the sellers seem to take a pride in their products that I've rarely seen: beautiful and careful arrangements of numerous varieties of fruits and veggies, nicely displayed meats and huge hanging hams, fresh seafood on beds of ice. And then you've got bars where you can get a bite to eat and a glass of tinto and, my personal favorite, the Organic is Orgasmic stand. It's run by a woman named Antonia who, apparently, loves delicious, organic food and serves it up at the market and at a nearby restaurant (that I haven't had time to patronize). They've got a very tempting salad bar at the market and the delicious tapas that you see on the left. I eat at least once at their stand when I've been to Barcelona.

Speaking of Barcelona, it's a really vibrant, interesting place that I enjoy immensely. It has a huge rivalry with Madrid. People are always comparing the two cities. I've spent about a week total on separate trips to Barcelona, and I've lived in Madrid for 13 months, so I can't really compare, but I have observations about differences in BCN. For one, it's got a much bigger alternative vibe than Madrid--tons of skaters, tons of dreads, piercings, tattoos, food like the stand I just wrote about. It's a little punkier, a little dirtier, a little earthier. Don't get me wrong: it's also got plenty of class and swank and businesspeople and the like. But I would estimate that Madrid has more. (I haven't even mentioned the football rivalry ... the two teams face off tonight for the first time this season.)

The last photo in the sidebar is taken at the spectacular Praia As Catedrais (Cathedrals Beach) beach on the northern coast of Galicia (Galicia is the northwest region of Spain). I traveled with my parents through the north of Spain last month and every Spaniard who heard we were going to Galicia told us this beach was a must-see. Well, it is. Rock pillars rise out of the blue sea, huge as towers. Waves crash against the rocks, and it's all very dramatic. We'd been following the coast since Llanes (in Asturias, just east of Galicia), and it was the most beautiful beach we saw (though there are plenty of gorgeous spots along the way). The Galician government has just declared it a natural monument, which I suppose will help protect it.

Before last month, I hadn't been to the north of Spain. On the trip, we spent most of our time in Asturias and Galicia, and both places are beautiful--and as different from central and southern Spain as you can imagine. Green green green. And rainy. Between driving crazy curvy roads, hiking through a breathtaking gorge in the Picos de Europa (left), beach crawling, wandering through old city centers, and eating, we had more than our fill of activities for the eight-day road trip. But there's a lot more exploring to be done up north...

Friday, October 20, 2006


Spain and I have a love/hate relationship. It's been a year so far with plenty of ups and downs--but we're still together. I learn new things and discover new places every single day thanks to my intimate involvement with the bustling, polluted, cranky, and cosmopolitan capital. I walk its streets. I teach its kids. I ride its metro and buses. I run in its parks. I know its bakers, its bar owners, its dentists, its supermarket cashiers. We're still getting to know each other, though. We've got time.

I've been thinking and talking about blogging for a long time. Sort of like how I thought about yoga a lot over summer vacation, and recommended it to my friends. Without actually doing it. (My yoga teacher loved that one--hey, we could call it "katie-asana.") But the time has come--back to work, back to yoga classes, time to start blogging.

Right now we are experiencing a nearly unheard of phenomenon in Madrid. Rain. It's been raining since Tuesday. Thank goodness, though. We need it--Madrid is notoriously dry.

Yesterday, crossing a busy intersection in the rain, I reflected on the frequent use of vulgarity here in good old España. A man crossing ahead of me, nearly run over by a guy who was oblivious to the fact that we had the right of way, smacked the car's hood and yelled, "¿A dónde vas, coño?" That is, "Where are you going, cunt?" Only in Spain.