Monday, January 21, 2008

Ensaimadas rellenas de cabello de angel - or - why I have stopped losing two kilos a month

How to make one.

Where they come from.

Confession: I would never have guessed pumpkin. Mme Cyn has tried to persuade me of the delights of pumpkin pie. I have remained politely sceptical.

Note to Mme. Cyn: Ooooooooh! Why didn't you TELL me?!?!

The last time I was so utterly seduced by a toothsome and calorie-packed goodie of this magnitude was in 1987, when I discovered the apple dumplings baked fresh every morning at the bakery on the corner of Whitehall Road in Bristol. Here's a recipe. It looks pretty close to the original to me.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Take me to your dealer

"Every few weeks I get in my car, cash in pocket, and drive to a pre-determined location. This is where I meet my dealer. I turn over a wad of greenbacks and she hands off a huge bag of the good stuff. Most of the time I don't really know exactly what I'm paying for. I scurry back to my car, drop the booty in the trunk, peel back the plastic and peer inside. If I'm lucky a neighborhood streetlight will be nearby to illuminate the contents of the bag. This time of year I might see the eyes of impossibly petite potatoes peering back at me, they could be nestled alongside a kaleidoscope of vibrantly colored carrots, or shouldered up against a of pile of parsnips. It's a mystery box, and $25 gets me something like twenty pounds of meticulously grown delights direct from Mariquita Farm in Watsonville, Ca (just down the coast from us city folk). Today's rustic cabbage soup recipe was inspired by the contents of their latest delivery. I sliced a moon-shaped cabbage into thin ribbons and cooked it down in a simple pot of sauteed potatoes, onions, garlic and flavorful broth. Each bowl was finished with a generous drizzle of great olive oil and a dusting of shredded cheese."
Not me, guys, Heidi Swanson!

Fijacion Actual

Habibi bought me a CD of José Mercé's Grandes Éxitos (Greatest Hits) for Christmas, after I heard a track in a bar and thought Who is that?!

José Mercé is a flamenco cantaor (singer), so a whole album takes some listening to when you're new to flamenco. On a first listening I found the album rather heavy going, but since then I have completely fallen in love with several tracks, and found most of the lyrics online. (Greatest hits albums never include lyrics, do they?)

I've had a go at translating, with some success, but I can't work out the end - which may be literal or metaphorical or both - of the wistful, lyrical Te Recuerdo Amanda, and I really wish I could. At work today, neither English & Australian nor Spanish colleagues were quite up to translating, though an adult student, passing through, pointed out that the song was actually written by Chilean Victor Jara, and was about Chile under Pinochet.

He wasn't quite right, but the confusion is understandable. Wikipedia describes Victor Jara as a Chilean pedagogue, theatre director, poet, singer-songwriter and social activist. A supporter of the Allende regime, the day after the US-backed military coup (on September 11th 1973) which replaced Allende with Pinochet, he was arrested, tortured, and finally executed on September 15th.

Victor Jara was evidently a very special human being. Events in Chile didn't touch me, a teenager in the 70s. The Chile link, above, makes sobering reading. And the catalyst for the events of Chile's 9/11 was US foreign policy and active interference to destabilise Allende's government, which had nationalised US copper interests. I imagine that Hugo Chavez took a deep breath before nationalising foreign oil interest in Venezuela............... (Oh, I should really just shut up at this point.)

Here's Victor Jara's response, on September 7th 1973, to a journalist's question: "What does love mean to you?".

“Love of my home, my wife and my children.
Love for the Earth that helps me live.
Love for education and of work.
Love of others who work for the common good.
Love of justice as the instrument that provides equilibrium for human dignity.
Love of peace in order to enjoy one's life.
Love of freedom, but not the freedom acquired at the expense of others’ freedom, but rather the freedom of all.
Love of freedom to live and exist, for the existence of my children, in my home, in my town, my city, among neighbouring people.
Love for freedom in the environment in which we are required to forge our destiny.
Love of freedom without yokes: nor ours nor foreign.”

He seems to have lived by it, too.

Te recuerdo Amanda

Te recuerdo Amanda
la calle mojada
corriendo a la fabrica
donde trabajaba Manuel
La sonrisa ancha,
la lluvia en el pelo,
no importaba nada
ibas a encontrarte con el,
con el, con el, con el, con el
Son cinco minutos
la vida es eterna,
en cinco minutos
Suena la sirena,
de vuelta al trabajo
y tu caminando
lo iluminas todo
los cinco minutos
te hacen florecer
Te recuerdo Amanda
la calle mojada
corriendo a la fabrica
donde trabajaba Manuel
La sonrisa ancha
la lluvia en el pelo
no importaba nada,
ibas a encontrarte con el,
con el, con el, con el, con el
Que partió a la sierra
que nunca hizo daño,
que partió a la sierra
y en cinco minutos,
quedó destrozado
Suena la sirena
de vuelta al trabajo
muchos no volvieron
tampoco Manuel.

I remember you Amanda
In the wet street
running to the factory
where Manuel was working.
The wide smile, the rain in your hair,
nothing mattered
you were going to be with him,
with him, with him, with him, with him.
They are five minutes
life is eternal,
in five minutes.
The siren sounds,
back to the work,
and you walking
illuminate everything,
five minutes
they make you bloom

I remember you Amanda
In the wet street
running to the factory
where Manuel was working.
The wide smile, the rain in your hair,
nothing mattered
you were going to be with him,
with him, with him, with him, with him.

Divided / separated (?) by the saw / mountains (?)
that never hurt / damaged
Divided by the saw
and in five minutes

The siren sounds
back to work
Many did not return
including Manuel.

Here's another favourite track, Aire, on YouTube. There's nothing to watch, but who cares?!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Getting out there

Yesterday was fun.

I rolled out of bed and phoned Customer Service at Telefonica. After listening to thirty seconds of my not-awake-yet-and –can-barely-speak-my-own-language-let-alone-yours Spanish, the agent asked, “¿Inglés, Francés o Alemán?” (Note: she wasn’t sure which language I spoke, but she knew it wasn’t Spanish.) and put me through to an English speaker, who dealt with my request politely, patiently and efficiently. Muchas gracias!

Then I pootled off (Cold! Wow!) for one of the last sessions of my excellent part-time course on teaching English to Young Learners. I was really tired, and not really with it, but didn’t want to miss a thing – and it was worth it. Two seminars and a cup of coffee, and it was 1 o’clock, and Habibi was waiting outside.

First stop: recreational trip to a Correos (post office). There are loads of post offices, and they’re open twelve hours a day, at least six days a week. There’s always a queue of course, and it may be long and winding, but as you arrive, you address the question “El ultimo?” to the air, and people wave you towards the last person in the queue. Very civilised. Some people chat, some blank out, others produce books and read. It’s quietly sociable, the staff are behind a long counter rather than a Perspex screen, and as queueing experiences go, it’s fairly painless.

Next: Mercado de Barceló, which I’d noticed across the road on a previous Correos visit. Mercados are big covered food markets, always on two floors. The Madrid ones are not handsome like the wonderful 19th Century Mercado Central in Valencia,
but they’re just as full of good things!

We bought some fruit and veg, then I spotted the market café and dragged Habibi over (literally) for a sit down. We sat on high stools at the no-frills counter and ordered a vino tinto (Spanish red table wine, served cold) and cerveza and I picked a tapas of fat, inch-long chorizo sausages. Later we asked to sample the calamares al tinto (squid in its own ink). We liked the chorizos so much (and I’m not generally a fan) that we later bought some and had Spanish sausageand mash with red cabbage for lunch to day. As for the calamares – it was ok, basically squid in a moderately salty paste – but I wouldn’t rush out and buy it that way, except to use in a winter fish stew.

The two women who ran the café were good-humoured and efficient, and it was good just to sit and chat and watch people come and go (always one of my favourite activities). Across the way, a woman at a greengrocer’s stall got really indignant about something – not sure what – and ranted on for absolutely ages before giving up and going on her way, whereupon the stallholders and the other dozen or so customers all looked at one another, shrugged, and carried on. Over at the café we had all enjoyed the show. “Qué pasa?” I asked. The woman laughed: “Nada!”
Lunch and a show: €2.90.

There's a demolition site where our neighborhood Mercado used to be. I don't know what's planned there, but this is what's on the drawing board for Mercado de Barceló.

We dropped our shopping off at home, and I went into zombie mode for an hour or so while Habibi read the Guardian on the terrace. It was a beautiful bright clear day, and the square was full of the gossipy overflow from the various bars, all making the most of the warm sun with their ‘Vermut’ or cerveza and tapas.

I’m reading Carol Drinkwater’s The Olive Route at the moment, the chapters on Lebanon, Syria and – now – Turkey. This is the third of her books that I’ve read, and they are very good, once she settles down to what she has to say. Her first chapters always grate on me, but once she hits her stride, moving beyond the fragrant excesses of poetic description and reflection, she has the ability to take you with her, and show you people and places as she sees them. I swear I can smell the landscapes she describes, with their wild fig trees, the Mediterranean garrigue, the goats and – so often – the smell of crushed olives. She definitely rewards perseverance - and I will be buying her other book!

And with my nose in a good book, I’m again making serious progress with H’baba’s 18th-birthday scarf. I know he’s 20 now, but it’s at least doubled in length in the last couple of months – I’m over half way now - and I expect that it’ll be cold again by the time I finish it……………..

So then we went out for a wander into the city centre. The sun had disappeared and before long the day turned bitterly cold again - too cold to be outdoors for no reason - but I really wanted to go somewhere big and lively, not a cosy little bar. I wanted company and variety. It was getting urgent – Habibi’s face had gone an interesting violet shade, and I felt compelled to check my frozen nose every few minutes just to make sure it hadn’t fallen off – so it was a relief to find ourselves outside two Irish bars - O’Connell Street and Dubliners – both crowded and showing football (somebody versus Newcastle). O’Connell’s was incredibly full, and smokey. So was Dubliners, but we found two seats at the bar, and settled in.

Now what? Working evenings does put the mockers on your social life, and I really really really did not want to go home and read, or watch a DVD, or knit; and I absolutely did not want to walk around a gallery or museum – however magnificent – and look at things. It was the weekend. I wanted to do something. With people.

But what? This is January and we’re spent up after Christmas, so it had to be cheap. Damn! No theatre this month, and I want to see Pinocchio – we saw some of the characters and scenery in the Cabalgada de los Reyes and I want to see that show,

but you know…. eating, heating, phone bill… all that mundane stuff… really should take priority! Also, with our limited free time and even more limited Spanish, we don’t know many people. There are bars and clubs of course, but did I mention that we’re 50?! Whatever - getting wrecked just doesn’t do it for me. What else do people do at the weekend?!

There was a copy of InMadrid on a shelf with an ad for JandJbooksand coffee which indicated all sorts of interesting social stuff as well as shelves and shelves of second-hand books. I like the Petra secondhand bookshop, on C. Campomanes, just off Pl. del Opera, which is a shabby little warren of delights, with a reading room at the back, full of squishy seating, good on a rainy afternoon. OK. Let’s take a look at J&J's. And then we can go home. Thanks Habibi….

Metro to Noviciado. Round the corner onto C. Espiritu Santu. We walked into what appeared to be Spain’s smokiest bar, and walked out. Through the haze, I’d seen a corner unit and a revolving wire stand of books, some occasional tables, a dozen people in lively conversation, and a staircase going down to a basement.
Was this a bookshop? - I asked the man who followed us out. Oh yes, it was.
Were there books downstairs? Yes. Thousands.

Habibi and I looked at each other: deep breaths, imaginary breathing gear. In and down.

Coo! Books: thousands of them, and doorways leading to more – three rooms in all, stacked to the ceiling. This will do nicely. About 20 minutes later, Habibi went back up to the bar with his two paperbacks, and I went up a little later with two reduced price hardbacks (€2 each) a talking book (€6.50) and a pop-up Nutcracker Suite proscenium arch theatre kit (€4). Habibi was talking with two women, one Australian and one English, and I joined them.

We had such an enjoyable evening, talking about all sorts of things over a couple of glasses of wine. Smoke? What smoke? When ‘Pauline’ switched to moccachino she was handed an enormous cup and saucer with a great creamy swirl on top – beautiful! It was twenty to midnight when we got home…….. Wild night out at the second-hand bookshop!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Coming up for air

I love being out of doors. I don’t mean the great outdoors, which is a bit too big for me, if truth be told, just out under the sky, with the air on my face.
Having spent much of the last decade indoors in air-conditioned spaces, I am really enjoying – weather! I like being on the move, too.

Of course, you can have too much of a good thing…. Last term was hectic, with four or six Metro journeys a day – which means eight to eighteen Metro stations, and goodness knows how many platforms, escalators, lifts, and miles and miles of underground corridors.

I quickly came to appreciate the efficiency of a system that could keep millions of people moving through the city at all hours of the day and night; and the foresight and professionalism of all the people who made it work: management, customer service personnel, cleaners, maintenance and security staff. And that ‘We deserve the best.’ attitude that seems to have informed the design and décor of the Metro since its inception. People moan about the limitations of the Metro – well, of course! - but it works, it’s safe, and it’s generally handsome too. (But don't get me started on the cleaners' strike..............)

I also like the tolerant and chatty atmosphere on the trains, quite different from the reserve and resignation of the London Underground; and the constant small theatre of people going about their lives: parents and children; travellers en route for airport, hotel or home; couples of all ages and in all stages of relationships (teatro del corazón!); people reading newspapers and novels, doing homework, checking CVs and documents; people staring into the middle distance, as if the forced intimacy of the rush hour crush is happening to someone else. And some of the buskers are very good, even if I don’t want to be bloody cheered up!

On the other hand, shuttling sweatily back and forth through the labyrinths of Diego de Leon, Goya/Lista, Avenida de America and Nuevos Ministerios, bundled in winter clothing and laden with whatever I need for the next-and-next classes, I really feel the wear and tear on my feet, back and nerves. And I get tired of being underground.

I have learnt to smooth the edges: allowing a few minutes extra in case of delayed or over-full trains; riding in the last carriage on some routes, the second one heading north to Colombia, and the front one heading south – so that I get off right next to my next staircase or escalator; taking the lift rather than the escalator as a break from the swarm of bodies and baggage; and avoiding the grubby claustrophobia of Plaza de Castilla in favour of airy Colombia.

I’ve also worked out where and when I can get the Cercanía (suburban railway – underground in the city, but no changes) and – the bus.
I love the bus!
No going underground. No corridors.
You get the sky by day and the lights by night, and trees and handsome buildings as well as the people around you.
You get to feel the air – and the rain (Boy Scout motto!).
There are lots of bus stops, all with shelters and timetables; and lots of buses, so you can get a seat at least half the time; and they’ve all got LED displays, just like in the trains, so you can be pretty confident of getting off at the right stop too, no matter how limited your Spanish.

Basically, what we have here is an integrated public transport system that works a treat, and with my monthly Abono ticket, I can use the the whole system. Madrid is not a big capital, though it’s expanding (as is the transport network), and between the Metro, the Cercanía and the buses, everyone can get from A to the rest of the alphabet without too much grief.
You don’t get the privacy of a car, but neither do you get the particular stresses of driving – the beauty of being a passenger, after all, is that you get time out to observe, think or daydream. You don’t have to park – and you can always come up for air.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Dear Dad

Sartorial tips for the man who's just had eye surgery.

The knitted eyepatch is an attractive and practical fashion accessory at this time of year. It's quick and easy to make, and you can use your favourite colour wool.

Then, when you've recovered, and only need half a pair of glasses, why not try a classic look?

And of course, since you close one eye for the important stuff anyway, you can still enjoy your favourite leisure pursuit, with no concessions on style or standards.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Coming of the Kings

The crowds started gathering early, so we joined them. Madrileños seem quite happy to queue for everything: lottery tickets, cigarettes, exhibitions, shows, bread, handbags (yup). It's a perfect excuse to stand and chat for half an hour: the whole family can come along, and it doesn't cost a thing. And yesterday, you got to queue with balloons. Who could miss that?


Private Boxes



Should've brought the stepladder.

Wherever you stood, it was such fun - what mattered was being there.

They have a saying here: De Madrid al Cielo. Basically, there's Madrid....... and then there's Heaven...... 'nuff said. I've started wondering about a special relationship between the powers that be and.. the Powers... because we've had some very interesting weather lately. Yes, it's cold - boy is it cold - but after pouring rain in the week before Christmas, it stayed dry and fine right through til about the 30th, rained for a day, then dried up for New Year's Eve, rained a bit more this week, and then stopped on Friday, giving us a fine day all day yesterday: perfect for several thousand families to have a happy day out. I'm English. I know that weather doesn't work like that, not normally, at any rate. Has someone round here got a hot line to the big guy?

Well, after several hoours, and a few vague specks that might have been rain, or might have been confetti, the rain started to - not fall exactly - more - waft, like net curtains in a breeze. We even get special rain here! It goes sideways, gently, in a real effort not to inconvenience anyone while they're busy enjoying themselves. There must be something in that saying.

So the slight haze in this picture is actually rain, and I imagine those acrobats were glad of their festive umbrellas! The rain continued as the parade ended, and three women dressed in white danced barefoot on an outdoor stage. Poor things, they were so graceful, never missed a beat or a step - and they got wetter and wetter. They finished the piece and left the stage with all the dignity you'd expect from professionals, but I don't think they'll forget that performance in a hurry

The rain stopped promptly - about thirty seconds later - for the opening bars of the Halleluiah Chorus, and a fabulous firework display. Right!

Imagine, the music pouring out: King of Kings! (Halleluiah! Halleluiah!) And Lord of Lords! (Halleluiah! Halleluiah!) - and the sky overhead filled with blazing stars and flowers, showers and streamers of gold and green. Wow!

And He shall reign for ever and ever. Halleluiah! Halleluiah! Halle-e-lu-u-iaaaaaaaah!

It's a beautiful day

It is. Another one! January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany, birthday of my godson - and of my grandmother who, my mother used to say, was 'five years older than the year'.

It's 10.30 a.m. so it's possible that every child in Spain has been up for at least four hours, to see what The Kings have brought them. Habibi has just woken up, so I'm going to make us some coffee, and start the day with some roscón de los reyes. We had some last night when we got back from the Cabalgada de los Reyes (The Procession of the Kings), and he assures me that the extremely crunchy thing which he bit down on and swallowed was merely some extremely crunchy sugar, and not a small ceramic toy. I hope so......

Then I'm going to suggest a paseo ..... a walk.... in Retiro in all that gorgeous sunshine, and then I'm going to upload some photos from last night. Gosh, what a busy day ahead! Wheeeeeeeee!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Feliz Navidad, Feliz Año

It’s been a while. I’ve been off for a couple of weeks, and in that time, we've had our darling son and two friends from waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back over to visit.

Habibibaba was here for ten days, and it was so good to have him around for a decent length of time. We didn’t do anything very imaginative, just took him to places we like and thought he’d enjoy, and sat and talked in cafes, and walked and walked, and talked and talked. Happy.

Our friends came for a long weekend, which was more of the same – though I think we covered as much distance in three days as in the preceding six!

The Christmas Fair in Plaza Mayor.

To make your own belén (nativity scene) you need cork bark for the stable walls and roof, and live moss for the hillside.

And you'll want to make a joyful noise for the Lord....

The little girl is reaching for a tambourine: there were also hooters, squeakers, trumpets and drums - it was deafening, and as the days passed the noise spread through the streets.

As did the wigs!

Something a little different this year?

Madrid has been quite magical, constantly bubbling with energy and imagination. Christmas trees, lights, fireworks – much as any European city, I expect – but it’s been one long Christmas treat, rather than some ho-ho-ho endurance test.

I never pined for an English Christmas when I was in Dubai, or muttered ‘It’s not the same.’ Too right it wasn’t the same, it was fun, and family and silliness and cosiness, not Jingle Bells from September on! Just a month (at least) of Christmas decorations stuck on every possible surface of our flat; a concentrated week or so of ‘secret’ preparations and teasing; and a day of presents, and friends and food…………. and then time and space to relax and enjoy ourselves.

Alcala, and the Puerta Alcala (Thank you Carlos III, bringer of town planning and straight roads.)

Only very special trees grow outside the Prado..... and Atocha Station....

Hot chestnuts, yams, corn - something to keep you going when you're sightseeing at 11 at night, and six degrees.

Here, the traditions are different, with all the fun of Christmas, but none of the pressure, and a steady build-up to the coming of Los Reyes Magos, who will bring presents for the children – tomorrow! (Habibi followed Spanish tradition, roasting a suckling pig on Christmas Eve. He tried looking wistful on the subject of the other Nochebuena tradition, in which the grown-ups exchange presents that night. Yeah right, as if!)

The Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos sets off from Nueveos Ministerios at 6 tomorrow evening, and comes down the Paseo de la Castilleana and Paseo de Recoletos to Plaza de Cibeles ( All roads may start from Puerta del Sol, but they al lead to Nuestra Señora de las Telecomunicaciones!) We’ll be there watching them ride by on their camels!

Before that, I must get un pequeño Roscon de los Reyes, just for two. I’ve only seen big ones, often filled with cream or confectioner’s cream, but I have been assured that you can get little ones: if all else fails, I’ll decorate a doughnut with glace fruits, though the tiny toy (for luck) will have to be very tiny.

Now, there's just time to leave your Christmas wish under the Árbol de los Deseos (The Wishing Tree) in Retiro. If you can't quite make it, try this!
And see how Christmas has come to Madrid. Llega la Navidad a MADRID. Y es lo mejor que puede pasarle a un deseo. That big wedding cake building at the end, with all the lights, that's Nstra. Sra. de Telecomunicaciones. Gorgeous, hmm. I don't know how a building can become
part of the family, but she has!

And finally, this is one man's belén.

And here's part of a shop window display.

If you want any more, you'd better take a look at the website of the Associación de Belenistas de Madrid.
This takes you to the work of all sorts of people - just delightful!
And here, you can see details of the belén at the Ayuntamiento (town hall) in Puerta del Sol. Do take a look at the 'Anunciación Pastores (Annunciation to the Shepherds) the Cabalgada (Caravan), and the Poblado with the archway - See the storks?!
If you live in the Middle East, you will love this. I'm going back tomorrow: Mary hadn't had her baby when I visited before - I see from the Natividad picture, that it's time to go again!

More? Here are some prize-winning pieces of extraordinary accuracy and charm.

P.S. Back on the downside, I got robbed - AGAIN - that's three times! This time they took my new birthday camera and Christmas mini-tripod (attached to each other, and buried in a deep pocket, under a glove, on the side between me and the friend I was walking almost arm-in-arm with - I mean - good grief!). So, no more photos for the foreseeable future, and may I say, in this season of giving:

Though I don’t think I look like a victim.
I get robbed with a frequency most sick’nin’.
Relieved of possessions
three times in succession,
I’m coating what I still have with strichnin’.

Let's hear it for that little guy!

I expect that the spacing is all over the place on this, but you get the general idea.

Happy New Year 2008!