Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Las Verbenas de la verana

We are currently based in central, older Madrid, where dozens of churches - and palaces and you name it! - date from the 17/18/19th centuries. Church and State are now separate in Spain, and with Franco long dead, there’s religious tolerance and freedom of worship, so although I’ve seen no mosques, temples or synagogues here in the centre, I’ve passed Hindus and Muslims in the street, heard Arabic and Hindi, seen a halal butcher, and heard the call to prayer over the radio in Iraqi shops, coffee shops and import businesses. No doubt there are mosques and temples in the more recently built suburbs. In the centre, though, I’ve seen streams of perfectly groomed middle-aged and elderly Madrileños going to and from mass each Sunday.

Arriving at the beginning of August, we have been here for the verbenas de verano. I was puzzled when I got here, because I knew lemon verbena as a herb, and why were they celebrating summer (verano) herbs? Here, a verbena is a local religious festival for the patron saint of a particular area, and August is Madrid’s verbena month, with masses, processions and streets decked in bunting in honour of San Cayetano, San Lorenzo, and the Virgen de la Paloma.

San Cayetano is the patron of Lavapiés, the old Jewish (and then Jewish convert) barrio, now with a largely student and foreign population. It’s cheap, laid back, and we like it, especially the pay-as-you-go locutorios, the ever-open Argumosa Librería (new & secondhand bookshop), the handy Carrefour supermarket, and the Economico café, where you can sit out, eat excellent food served by friendly staff, and watch the world go by over a caña of beer or a vaso of good Spanish wine. We also like the sidrería across the road, where they demonstrated how to pour a bottle of Asturian cider. Never seen anything like it! More on that another day, when they get back from their holidays, and I can take some photos: they’ve been ‘cerrado por vacaciones’ since the end of the street party for the San Cayetano verbena, around August 7th.

On August 11th (San Lorenzo) we had just moved into our flat and were in recovery mode after a week’s sight-seeing and flat-hunting in Spanish at 36°C, so we missed that one. All I know is that it started as a celebration for a naval victory a few hundred years ago.

However, I picked August 15th to try the public library next to Puerta de Toledo, and arrived there at 8.30, opening time. No sign of life – no problem. After a café sólo and tostada con aceite (toast and olive oil – Butter is not common here, except, I suppose, in green, wet Galicia with its dairy herds.) I pitched up at the library again, this time at 9 o’clock. Nada! It turned out that this was the actual Verbena de la Paloma; the Virgen was the patron of the neighborhood, and of firemen. Her church, and the local fire station, were both just across the way; and everything was shut for the fiesta. The library would be open the next day. I phoned Habibi, and he came down with camera, and we went over to the Plaza de la Virgen de la Paloma.

La Virgen de la Paloma. This painting had been hung above the entrance to a cervecería.

The base of the float. Later on, the massive, gilded altarpiece will be brought out of the church, mounted on this base, banked with flowers, and with its (newly checked) electric lamps blazing, carried through the streets in procession at 8 p.m.

The rear of the float

And another piece in raw wrought iron. Perhaps to do with the fire service?

Perhaps a fireman created this personal display on his balcony, in honour of the patron of the fire service. 'Patrona de los Bomberos. Muchos Salvar'

The fire station is just around the corner from here.

Creating flower panels. The church had been open since the previous evening for offerings of cut flowers, and people continued to arrive with sprays of flowers. All through the first mass of the day, these two Madrileños in traditional dress, and a changing team of helpers, tucked the flowers into the mesh panels, ready for the evening procession

A reminder of the 'dons' of Spanish history. Deacons, perhaps? Police are a familiar and reassuring sight here. They're all very relaxed, just always around.

An entire building dressed for the occasion. These balconies are draped in green satin, overlaid with white gauze, with an arrangement of flowers on each one. Devotion.

Fiesta time. The apartment building on the left is being restored and modernised, as are many such buildings, making coloured tarpaulin our all-year-round bunting. Round the corner, the street is lined with food and drink stalls that stay open far into the night during the fiesta. When I walked down that morning, unaware of the fiesta - and all-night street parties - I was appalled at the litter-strewn streets, and abruptly crossed this neighborhood off my list for permanent-flat-hunting. The next thing I knew, the Medio Ambiente guys had swung into action with brooms, hoses, trolleys and trucks, and there was water running down pavements and roads. And everything was back to normal. Very impressive.

Local dress is not merely fancy dress, or only worn by the middle-aged and elderly.

I was intrigued by this man's pipe, which has a hinged lid! He was phlegmatic about being photographed. There was another man, in a rather battered black top hat and black tailcoat, whose sideburns struck me as rather improbable - yup - glued on for the occasion!

This gypsy woman and her barrel organ are usually parked in one of the shopping streets off Puerta del Sol, but she was down here early, if not bright.

There was a big tent outside the church, with chairs and tables laid out. This man is squirting closed horseshoes of dough into hot oil to make churros, an Andalucian doughnut. The doughnuts - the blandest thing I have ever tasted - are dipped in Andalucian hot chocolate - hot, liquid chocolate, not to be confused with drinking chocolate. Alright if you like that sort of thing.....

Variations on a theme.

And this, gratefully borrowed from another blog , is the actual float of La Virgen de la Paloma, being carried through the streets of Madrid on August 15th. She stopped traffic for a couple of hours.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Hacer de Compras

Grocery Shopping

Phrasebooks are great for holidays.

You walk into a cervecería, give the camarero a big sonrisa (:D) open your libro de frasos at Page 2, and point to the fraso, Dos cervezas, por favor.
El camarero rewards you with an authentic flamenco stare down his handsome Spanish nariz ( :<\ ), and ¡Olé! Roberto es su tio. (Except that, in Spain, Pepe es su tio - and María es su tia, while we're doing cultural notes.) Three hours and several pages más tarde, full of bocadillos, paella, tapas, pinchos and vino tinto, you write a cheque in the air, and are rewarded with a small circular dish bearing the latest news on the exchange rate. You sort through various denominations of billetes in pretty colours, and a pocketful of unfamiliar silver, brass and copper, and then beam a happy ¡Hasta luego! at el mundo at large, and continue on your way in search of new pages. ¡Qué bueno! Well, three weeks into our sojourn aquí, we've done Page 2 lots of times. ¡Qué bueno! Of course, we've also gone off text. First there was shopping for food, because you can't eat out alllllll the time. The Mercado is across the road from us for fresh fruit and veg, meat, fish, eggs, cheese and bread; and all around us there is every kind of shop, like a street in a children´s book: grocer, bakery, charcutería ('deli' doesn't cover it), shoe shop, hardware store, chemist, book shop, stationer, fabric shop, wool shop, clothes shop, health food shop, farm shop, toy shop, plus gym, salon de juegos (games arcade), and lots of cafeterias and cervecerías, also sidrerías, pizzerias and purveyors of Döner Kebap. And that's just around the corner. (I was going to say 'walking distance', but everything's within walking distance: one of the pleasures of being here is being able to walk everywhere, and we do.) In Dubai we have shopping malls. In Britain we have Tesco superstores. Here, where everyone lives stacked three or four deep above a shop, in buildings over a century old, finding space or getting planning permission for a mega-mall or whopper-market which would increase efficiency and profitability (for the owner of said WHaM) and denude a neighborhood of everything but estate agents, charity shops and antique dealers by day, and graffiti artists and piss artists by night – oh, and involve rehousing four households (and 4-12 registered voters) for every 50m2 of retail space... well... I think we're safe for a while yet. Whoo! First rant in Spain! Gonna be an anarcho-conservative, libero-fascist greenie! Anyway, I've always enjoyed food markets – the fragrant heaps and pyramids of colour, the orderly variety of fish and seafood, cheese and bread; the different types and cuts of meat; the range of preserved goodies: salt- and smoke-cured meat, all ages and stages of cheese, salted fish, and pickled olives; and eggs of all colours, sizes, and parentage. On my first visit to the Mercado I was in my element, even though it was a Monday, so most of the stalls were shut after the busy weekend trade. In my new orange espadrilles, and with my natty new shopping basket with the blue and green striped lining (spot the newcomer doing New Life in Spain!) I trotted round reading labels and notices, watching and listening to other shoppers, and thumbing back and forth and back again through my diccionario. It took lots of smiles, mime and pointing, but I did manage to hacer de compras en español and €s. The first surprise was that they wrap everything in waxed paper; the second that they assume you want a plastic carrier bag for everything, even though most shoppers have shopping bags or wheelie-bags. And there was I with aforementioned natty basket. Oh well, I was buying fish and meat anyway. Where our market at home features Lincolnshire potatoes, here we have gallego (Gallician) poultry and eggs (fresh turkey any time, not just Christmas and Thanksgiving), granadiño and Iberian hams, and embutidos (sausages) ibéricos. I think that in this context, ibérico/Iberian simply means Spanish, rather than imported, though there are special pork cuts and products which you would not find outside Spain. (And if you've ever seen a vacuum-packed lardon, basically a 10x8x5cm lump of white fat trimmed with bacon for contrast, you'll understand why!). After a dozen years in a Muslim country, it's a little overwhelming to find myself in Pork Central. While Dubai’s supermarket chains – apart from the French ones – carried pork lines, we were paying for food miles and the privilege of access to haram products, which put the British (best!) beyond our budget, leaving bland and additive-packed American brands - or South African bacon which tasted good, but more or less vapourised on contact with grill or frying pan..... Hmm.... a little disconcerting. And what is the point of turkey, beef or soya bacon? So I skipped it. Apart from the black pudding. That worked! Here, there's pork everywhere. Suckling pigs smile adorably from window displays, in a dead sort of way, like cheerfully philosophical Babe wannabes; and ‘jamon’ legs hang in rows in cervecerías, cafés and restaurants, the current one propped on a special stand, ready for slicing for your lunchtime tostada or bocadillo (and, once, a discarded one in a skip, trotter pointing skyward – a little unsettling until brain processed glimpse and established that this was neither part of a plastic mannequin, nor the beginnings of a police enquiry). When not sliced and packed, pork looks so human…..

But – it is the Spanish meat, dating back to the centuries when the majority of Spaniards lived in poverty and – like the rural poor in most countries – kept a pig for meat. And – I suppose - ate every last scrap, however inventive they had to be to make it palatable. Also, in periods of religious intolerance, a leg of ‘jamon’ hanging in your window was insurance of a sort.

Last year I was introduced to a very Spanish cheese. It has no name, as far as I can tell – just your común o jardín queso - but it's made from the milk of cabra, oveja y vaca (goat, ewe and cow) and comes in three ages: tierno (young), semi-curado, and curado. Habibi's not impressed, but I enjoy all three. As with all cheeses, refrigeration makes it bland, but with August temperatures of 26-36º, I don't really want it lurking in a corner, plotting my overthrow, so it lives in the fridge, but gets three or four hours freedom before meals.

Anyway, when I got home from the Mercado (and the horno/pastelería/confitería bakery/pastry-shop/sweetshop), I put everything away, made myself a coffee, spread the printed waxed wrappers on the table and pulled out the diccionario again. Which is why I can spout merrily about embutidos and the like.

One thing. When I was little, my Grandmère had a quince bush, and used to make quince jam, which I adored. When I saw quince last year (in the French hypermarket Géant, in Ibn Battuta Mall, in Dubai!) of sugar, I pounced. I had to look up quince on the Internet to find out how to cook it, and I duly followed the instructions, which involved an improbable quantity of sugar. Result. Inedibly sweet muck. Vile.
So, when I saw tarte de membrillo in the local horno/pastelería/confitería-bakery/pastry-shop/sweetshop, I bought one.
Any Beano readers reading this? No? Dandy?……… Do you remember Dennis the Menace/Minnie the Minx/Desperate Dan’s reaction to revolting food? It went as follows: Grrrroooooogh!
If and when I find fresh membrillos – I mean quinces - I'm using half the standard sugar quantity. Ha!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Estamos aquí!

We´re here!

Yeeha! We flew to Madrid a week ago, to stay in the very comfortable Hotel Agumar on Paseo Reina Cristina, which I had booked online the day before through expedia.com. That saved us €18-23 a night on their regular rate, so let me recommend the expedia service!

The hotel is in the Tringulo de las artes, which means that, although P. Reina Cristina itself is nothing to write home about, it’s in walking distance of the Prado, the Centro Reina Sofía (modern art) and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, a donated private collection which apparently fills some of the gaps in the Prado collection: apparently, the Prado collection reflects the tastes of successive monarchs, rather than a sustained effort to build a representative national collection. We managed some of the Reina Sofía last weekend, but there’s no rush to pack it all into one trip – because we live here now, and can go back as often as we like! Ha!

We extended our hotel stay a couple of days (which is why I know the difference between the expedia rate and the regular rate.) while we looked for permanent accommodation. After seeing some teensy-weensy unfurnished flats at the kind of rates you expect in a capital city, of which our favourite (owned by a bank) would have involved a twelve month bank guarantee, or six months’ rent as security, we decided to find something furnished as a temporary measure, to give us time to get to know the city properly.

Habibi found the in-Madrid.com website a few months ago, which is why we know that the Madrid Players don’t play for Real Madrid. In-Madrid.com has a section advertising flat shares and furnished rooms.

Habibi downloaded the current ads, and I composed a standard email which I could then amend according to whether the ad was for a flat (piso) or a bedroom (habitación) in a shared flat (piso compartído) and whether said habitación was individual or doblé, or we could do one or two rooms on our budget. For the entertainment of anyone who speaks español, I enclose my best efforts:

Hi there.

I saw your ad in In-Madrid.com. My husband and I are looking for a room for a month, while we look for other, more permanent accommodation, and your room sounds ideal. Is it still available, and if so, can we come and see it? We can come today.

We are a professional couple, English, and fully house-trained!

This is my email address, but I have to go to a locutorio to check my email. If you would like to call me on my mobile, my number is 123456789. Could you let me know what rent you are asking?


Estoy buscando un habitacion para mi, y mi marido, para un mes. Somos profesionales, limpias y responsables.

Es su habitacion tambien disponible? Podemos visitar hoy. Este es mi email, pero es mas facil si usted puede llamar a mi movil, nombre: 123456789. Que es el precio, por favor?

Hasta luego,

Mama Pata

P.S. I apologise for the errors in my Spanish!

The next step was to phone the people who didn’t give email addresses. Trepidation: replying to ads (anuncios) in in-Madrid and Segundomano (daily small ads mag) submitted in español……ulp!

Lots of pauses and repetition, (and answerphone messages! Never thought about having to leave messages!) plus deep gratitude that those who answered the phone a) were generally patient and good-humoured, and b) could, in some cases, speak English!

We ended up looking at this place, in the area we wanted, at 10 o’clock last night, after the very kind keyholder finished work. Done deal. Went for a drink round the corner afterwards to celebrate. Turns out he used to work in Saudi and Britain – and he’s French, by the way – so we had plenty to talk about.

Today (Thursday, August 9th)we packed, checked out of Hotel Agumar, handed over a month’s rent for this place, took possession of FIVE keys, and moved in. And it’s lovely. A couple of hundred years old, small and quite noisy, but perfect for us for now.

Two negatives: there is a knack to opening the street door, and we were stuck out in the sun for nearly 10 minutes improvising wrist action and tactical pulls and pushes, before a neighbour appeared and demonstrated The Knack. Huh. I’m going to practise after sunset.

And (Neg2) we’re not sure where the light switch is in the lobby, which does a pretty good impression of Stygian gloom as soon as the fine Mediterranean solid wood street door closes: Habibi tripped with his hands full and hit his face on the stairs. He’s fine, if somewhat grazed and bruised, but it was horrible at the time. If only he’d tripped over a goat or chicken, it would have the makings of one of those jolly place-in-the-sun anecdotes, but unfortunately, central Madrid is notably lacking in farmlife, so no publishing deal so far. But no sticking plasters either, so not too bad.

Anyway, tenemos un piso exterior, pequeño, mucha luz, suelo parquet, con televisión, amueblada, , baño con ducha, cocina equipada. A cinco minutos a pie de Metro y parada de autobus. €800 gastos incluidos. And, just for the record, somos gente limpia, y responsable. (We have a nice furnished flat, €800 a month, all in).

It´s a sign......

piso pequeño y bonito

.....with really good....


Greetings from our bit of Madrid!