Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Two, of many, great things about Madrid

1. El Tigre is a bar in the center of Madrid (C/ Infantas), just off of Gran Vía, and in the über-trendy and gay barrio, Chueca. But this bar is neither trendy nor gay. It's always bustling -- and with good reason. With a 1.50 euro caña (small beer) you get a plate full of whatever's on the grill and more: patatas bravas, croquetas, jamón, egg, fried peppers, cheese. The guys behind the bar yell orders constantly, while pouring beers, and move as if bartending were a choreographed art. You have to fight your way to the bar and perch your plate wherever you can, but a tasty and filling meal for under 5 euros (that's three cañas) and great ambiente are worth it.

2. Casa Granada is a rooftop terrace restaurant hidden atop an ordinary and totally unassuming apartment building. You have to be in the know to find the place, just north of metro Tirso de Molina, and once you've buzzed up, ride in the elevator plastered with signs begging riders to adhere to the four-person limit. It's within spitting distance of the Rastro, La Latina's gigantic Sunday flea market, which makes it the perfect place for a meal after navigating the crowds and t-shirt stands. You might have to wait a while for a table, but you'll be glad you did. What else is there to do on Sunday but eat and drink? And meanwhile, you can order a beer and wander out to the terrace for amazingly grand views of Madrid and her suburbs. The raciones are delicious and inexpensive. For two, a plate of pimientos de padrón (tiny peppers fried in oil and sprinkled with sea salt) and one of calamares were more than enough, and cost 11 euros.

Monday, November 27, 2006


And the Christmas season officially begins.

This morning I awoke to the sound of something heavy being dropped down a hole. When I got downstairs for my run the building entrance was a mess. The floor was covered in sawdust and a metal track, along which two men were wheeling enormous wheelbarrows heaped with coal. Of course: we'd been without heat all weekend, and these guys were delivering coal to get our smelly heating system started again. In and out they went, carefully monitored by our diminutive doorman, dressed in the blue coverall he dons every morning to mop the entrance.

I'm now showered and breakfasted, and I think they're finally getting ready to leave. We should have enough coal to last the month.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Lunchtime politics

Today, school lunch got a little heated.

One of the great perks of my job is that I eat in the school dining room every day for free. We're a small group of teachers that stick around in the middle of the day for lunch (there's a two-hour break). It's convenient and relatively cheap for the other teachers, and it's a full Spanish lunch. That is, the size of (or bigger than) an American dinner. First course, second course, salad, fruit, and yogurt. The kids eat this too. It's really a far cry from school lunches in the States. There's actually a woman cooking everything at my school. That's not to say the food is out of this world, but it's good enough, and it's a huge meal that saves me a lot of money. But this is just background.

The point is that today at lunch we were seven teachers in the cozy room where we always eat. Somehow the conversation turned to Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, and the principal began to lament the fact that statues and monuments to Franco have been (or are being) torn down. And that Spain's current president, the socialist Zapatero, should be blamed for it. The religion teacher then chimed in to say that it was a crying shame, and that people don't give Franco enough respect. (Yes, Catholic religion is still taught in Spanish public schools. It's not obligatory. The few kids who don't go in my school are Muslim.) He added that Spaniards lived very very well under Franco. And then two of the younger teachers commented that Franco shouldn't be maligned as much as he is, that the monuments are a part of history. The conversation moved very quickly, like all of these teachers were excited to have discovered that their colleagues shared their views.

I was sitting there feeling my face get hot and that the room was just way too small for the seven of us. Then the school's youngest teacher spoke up in response to the religion teacher, saying that come on, not everyone lived well under Franco. The other assistant (who's also American) and I fidgeted in our seats. I said I certainly had heard Spaniards say some not very nice things about life under Franco. The bell rang and the conversation continued until the youngest teacher said, "Wasn't that the bell?" I sighed inwardly. The other assistant and I walked out of the room shaking our heads in disbelief.

I've been thinking about lunch all evening. It is a known fact among teachers at my school that there are plenty of conservatives among our ranks. The principal and the religion teacher are extremely devout Catholics and they're also some of the oldest in the school. The three of us who kept our mouths shut mostly during the conversation are the youngest working at school. And we are not at all Catholic.

But the point is that Franco was a dictator. He killed people. He isolated Spain from the rest of the world (both politically and econimically). He disallowed political parties, the country's other languages (Galician, Catalán, and Basque), and most press. He imposed strict Catholic mores on all aspects of Spanish life and above all, in the public schools.

Yo flipo.

Oddly enough, tonight I encountered another interesting, but not quite as uncomfortable conversation. After yoga, I stopped by a little market to pick up a few things. The owner, ringing up a customer, was commenting, "Everyone says people in the United States live better than we do. But it's not true. We live well here." The customer nodded his head in agreement, as the owner turned to me and explained that he likes to engage this guy in conversation, sorry for the hold up. I offered that I was American. The owner continued, saying that, yes the Spaniards live well. They shouldn't complain so much. For example, the laws are much stricter in the United States. Here in Spain, we get away with a lot.

I had to agree. Despite my daily complaints or all the Franco lovers out there, life in Spain nowadays is not too shabby.

Clementine postscript

On Sunday, I lugged 5 kilos of clementines on the bus from Valencia to Madrid. They came straight from the trees in Castellón, the province north of Valencia. If only I had a way to get them back into the States...

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Oh my darling clementine

Clementine season has begun. I couldn't be happier to be spending it in España for the second time 'round. The lovely specimen of a fruit in the photo came from a market in Valencia. It was delicious. I mean, really, what could be better? Totally portable, peelable, seedless fruit. Clementines are like candy with vitamins.

My mom always used to buy crates and crates of "Clementines from Spain" in the winter because we would go through them so quickly. And they're not that cheap in the States. In Madrid, I can get a kilo for under 2 euros and they are a staple in my diet from November until early February.

Monday, November 13, 2006


Ever since I arrived in Spain I've been fascinated and disturbed by the culture of movies here. The market is widely saturated by films from the U.S., but in their dubbed and title-changed versions. And the Spaniards wonder why their level of English is so far behind the rest of Europe? American movies and television dubbed into Spanish are certainly a culprit.

This weekend I saw the excellent film The Departed. Spanish title? Infiltrados. That is, "the infiltrators." Can we possibly lack any more creativity? As I refuse to pay to see a dubbed movie, I saw it in its original version with subtitles at my favorite theater, Cine Ideal. I can't stand when the lips moving and what I'm hearing don't match. Also, I value the actors and the nuances of the way they speak. I don't want to hear some Spanish man or woman whose voice sounds curiously the same as every other dubber but not like anyone I actually know or hear on the street.

The Spaniards I know who balk at seeing a movie in versión original argue that they don't like reading subtitles and that dubbing is necessary here because so much is imported from the States. I never thought twice about seeing a subtitled movie in the U.S.--it always felt so exotic. Hearing the actors' voices, even if I didn't understand a word of what they were saying, seemed an important element of their characters. I encourage my English students to go see movies in versión original. Even if they are reading the whole time, their ears are taking in some English.

I do like to read the Spanish subtitles here because I'm interested in how they translate things. In The Departed it was a lesson in translations of vulgarities. Watching that particular film, however, made me realize that no matter how much I bash dubbing, there are great shortcomings to subtitles as well. The Spanish I was reading at the bottom of the screen seemed so formal in comparison to the foul-mouthed Boston accents coming in my ears. There is no way the translator could ever capture all the slang spit out by Mark Wahlberg or Leonardo DiCaprio. But, at least we could hear what their accents were like.

Today I had another adventure in the world of dubbing. We took about 100 kids from school to see a free movie at an international children's film festival here in Madrid. We arrived slightly late and I was surprised when I entered the theater to to hear that the movie was in English. I do work at a bilingual school, but my kids have a long way to go. But no, there was a voice coming from the back of the theater--in its dull monotone I thought it was someone directing us to our seats. No no. It was a guy reading a translation of the film into Spanish, just slightly behind the English dialogue. You know, like an interpreter at a meeting between politicians from different countries. They'd turned down the volume of the original so we could hear this guy's completely boring voice and it just about put me to sleep.

The second graders seemed entertained enough by the pretty inane and poorly animated version of the nutcracker story. The fifth graders were definitely fidgety for most of the time. And no one laughed at any of the jokes.

Monday, November 06, 2006

I voted

The Spanish mail system came through just in time. I'd been anxiously awaiting my absentee ballot for weeks and had virtually given up on its arriving today in time for me to both fill it out and postmark it before the end of business.

But I ran home in the middle of the school day to check the mail, and there it was. The doorman, to whom I'd explained the situation earlier, was exhilarated.

Who knows if my vote will count, but it's on its way back to the States.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

La calle es de todos

The street is for everyone. I saw these words stenciled on a building in the center of Madrid while wandering around with a friend last week. It seems an appropriate thing to say about Madrid, where so much life is concentrated on the streets. I'm not just talking about the homeless people here, who sleep on benches, building entrances, and in parks, or the crippled beggars who sit in the middle of the sidewalk on Gran Via and ask for change. Or even the groups of teenagers who congregate in the alleyway under my window late at night. I'm talking about all Madrileños, old and young, Spanish and foreign, pijo and alternativo. I'm talking about the West Africans selling pirated DVDs on the streets and in the Metro entrances, the gay couple embracing outside the Palacio Real, the Pakistani man smoking a cigarette outside his non-smoking locutorio, the Ecuadorans picnicking in Parque del Oeste every Sunday, the Peruvian musicians playing in Sol.

I'm talking about Lavapiés, probably the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the center of Madrid. I was there three times in the last week--one night for a kebab, one night for Indian food, and today as we looked for a less crowded alternative to La Latina to eat outside on this cloudy, chilly, but not rainy day. It was just our luck to come across a terraza with an empty table just north of an enormous drum circle congregated in the plaza. Now, Lavapiés has become semi-trendy among Madrileños who dig the ethnic food and the alternative Spanish tabernas, the art and music scene, and the wonderful old architecture. But whenever I go there I can't forget what one of my female Spanish friends told me once: that she had been really interested in taking a flamenco class at El Horno, a dance center in the neighborhood, but had ultimately decided against it based on the fact that the class would end around 7 p.m. and the streets would be full of immigrants just standing around and looking at her. I couldn't help thinking that it was a terrible shame to give up the class for that reason. La calle es de todos, ¿no?


These municipal workers are busy washing the street right outside my apartment. This was during a sunny interlude between two rainy weeks in Madrid. What is most amazing to me is that they wash the streets even on the rainy days. But they're worried about the lack of water in Spain?