Monday, April 18, 2011

The final picture

So, about a year after the donkey made his way to Salamanca with the exam scripts, the diploma finally arrived in the mail one day, when my Thpanish-thpeaking adventure had already faded into just a memory. But here is visual confirmation that I didn't make it all up. I wasn't dry-blogging from the Castro the whole time:

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And yes, I am also a Fellow of the American Statistical Association. But that was in a past life, and it all seems so very far away now.

In the words of L.P. Hartley (the famous opening line of The Go-Between, a book I finally got around to reading this past November) -

The past is a foreign country : they do things differently there.

I can think of no better way to close this blog for good. Gracias por leerlo!

Friday, March 25, 2011

New blog!

MAINLY ON THE PLAIN has been essentially closed down for about the past year. The good news is that, since February 2011, there is a new blog, documenting my francophone adventures at

Whipping Cats

Same management, different language!

Please stop by the new blog.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mad language skillz

I guess the donkey eventually made it to the University of Salamanca with the exam scripts. According to the Cervantes Institute website, my overall grade in the DELE Superior (convocation of November, 2009) was ..... drumroll, please -


Yeah! (It's a pass/fail deal: the only two outcomes are "apto" and not "apto")

The gory details: (to pass, one needs to score 70% or higher, in each of the three sections, and overall)

Section I:
Reading comprehension 13.89 out of 15 points
Written expression 17.00 out of 20 points

Section II:
Grammar and vocabulary 17 out of 20 points

Section III:
Auditory comprehension 11.25 out of 15 points
Oral expression 23.50 out of 30 points

TOTAL: 82.64 out of 100 points

In other news, I am reading "Infinite Jest".

Monday, November 30, 2009

Colorín colorado, este cuento se ha acabado

All good things come to an end. As this is my final night here in Spain, and I have no immediate plans to return, this is probably the last post I shall make on this blog. No two ways about it, I've had a lot of fun since the adventure started way back in March 2007. But, some 650 posts later, it's time to call it a day.

Upon my return to San Francisco, I plan to apply for U.S. citizenship. The process takes an indefinite length of time, but probably at least 3 to 4 months. During that time I will not be allowed to leave the U.S. My plans beyond that are fluid, but will almost certainly not include a return to Spain in any kind of visiting academic capacity. For various reasons, my contacts with the two local universities in Madrid made that a less appealing possibility, primarily because I consider that one of the strengths I have to offer is the ability to excel in interdisciplinary work, and here in Spain, well - basically, they not only do not do "interdisciplinary" well, they just don't seem to do it at all. Teaching a basic intro statistics course to undergraduates while trapped in an isolated ghetto of statisticians who have little or no contact with their colleagues in the medical school a few buildings away is something that frankly just does not interest me in the slightest.

To all the visitors to this blog - thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.

Adiós. Fue un gran placer.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Book Review: "Sharp Teeth" by Toby Barlow

Los Angeles has always disturbed me. All that sunshine. Those über-toned bodies. Packs of werewolves roaming the canyons and arroyos. It's enough to make any catlover nervous.

In this awesome, exuberant, first book Toby Barlow strips away the city's thin veneer of civilization and lays bare its raw, violent, lycanthropic underbelly. It's the cross-species love story between dogcatcher Anthony and his damaged werewolf lover, which unfolds against a backdrop of drugs, murder, revenge, and the battle for pack dominance. It's noir, funny, riveting, tender, completely over the top, and by rights it shouldn't work at all. But it does - it's completely addictive and unexpectedly moving.

Part of its power is a consequence of Barlow's choice to write it in free verse. The resulting rhythm give the whole story a driving momentum that keeps the reader riveted -- I read the whole book in two sittings. The plot, which seemed inextricably complicated at the halfway mark, is resolved neatly by the end, though I do feel that I need to give the book a second reading to figure out the various strands.

The sheer momentum built up by Barlow's writing works against a careful reading, so I anticipate that a second reading will bring further rewards. Depending on how my second reading goes, I may yet have to give this most excellent book a fifth star.

If you have time for only one lycanthropic love story this year, then look no farther than "Sharp Teeth". Toby Barlow can be proud of this totally impressive debut.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

El internado - un lugar donde todo puede suceder

Things have spiralled a little into the territory of the truly bizarre in Season 3 of "El Internado", but it still has that delicious mix of everyone furtively lurking in the hallways and secret passages that makes it irresistible to some of us. I have only one more episode to go in Season 3, by the end of which it's safe to guess that Hector's deep secret will be revealed. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that he is actually the twin of Irene Espi, who is currently being held prisoner by the evil Latin teacher in a secret lair in the underground passages. She is, of course, the alleged-to-be-dead mother of young Marcus and adorable little Paula.

But the details are just far too complicated. That 30-million dollar Hieronymus Bosch triptych is still at large, to mention just one random plot thread; then with all those runic symbols carved all over the joint (I really need to brush up on my Futhark), it doesn't seem too much of an overreach to think that the main plot twist has to do with overzealous neo-nazi human genetic/eugenics taken a little too far, what with the availability of all those orphans for experimenting on, no questions asked, back in Franco's time. But I've been chastised for letting my enthusiasm for this series get the better of me, so enough already.

I failed to mention that when I went to pick up the Sunday newspaper in Cadiz, I was able to secure, for a paltry 5.95 euros, my very own Internado fan-pack:

internado fan pack (with 3D gafas!)

Note those far-out 3D gafas, and that stylin' school crest. Plus full cast bios, and a special 270-minute DVD replete with details of the archivos secretos*. Unfortunately, I won't be able to take full advantage for a while, to avoid spoilers for Seasons 4 and 5. Season 6 just began aqui en Espana.

*: Including, one hopes, details of the creepy "Project Gemini" files. If there is one thing that is abundantly clear by now on this series, it's that being a twin anywhere in the remote neighborhood of El Internado is a very bad idea indeed.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The anti-Santa faction

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Yes, Virginia. There is an anti-Santa faction.
"How can this be?", I hear you ask.
Una buena pregunta.

Well, the thing is, here en España, the established tradition has always been that children receive their Yuletide gifts from the three Wise Kings -- Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior. As we know, the Magi, or Reyes Magos, don't put in their appearance until the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. So the prevailing custom throughout Spain, for centuries and centuries, was that little children would hang their stockings on the balcony on January 5th, in anticipation of whatever goodies the Reyes Magos would bring. Unlike that fat old gentleman from the North Pole, Melchior & co are way too dignified to mess with stuff like chimney entrances.

Everything was fine until - inevitably - those nasty hegemonistic Americans, hellbent on subjugating Europe to their materialistic, capitalist will, began to poison the minds of innocent Thpanish tykes with their Saturday morning cartoons, their holiday Christmas specials, their seasonal technicolor motion pictures, all prominently featuring Santa Claus, arriving on December 24th with a cornucopia of consumer goods for young and old alike. It didn't take too long for the avaricious little Iberian rugrats to figure out that here was a perfect opportunity to guilt-trip mama y papa into delivering a double dose of holiday gifties.

A vocal minority of defenders of true Thpanish tradition holds out against the evil influence of the fat interloper from the North Pole (most often they blame Disney), but the battle has essentially been lost, and they are fighting a rearguard action at this stage:

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In related news, tonight the Christmas lights were turned on throughout the city. I am so excited, as I had been afraid it might not happen until after I left. Here are some random photos I took while out walking around earlier this evening.

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The Christmas tree at Sol.

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Lights over the Plaza Mayor.

I know that I will be out shopping this weekend!

End of the adventure?

end of the adventure?

No matter what the folks at the Cervantes Institute decide, if the certificate above is to be taken at face value, in the eyes of Don Quijote I have now attained the highest possible grade at the highest level of Thpanish. So I will permit myself an immodest YIPPEE!

It's a little bittersweet, however, because it becomes more and more clear that I can no longer use "learning Spanish" as an excuse for further globetrotting. Which raises the immediate question - what now?

I have a few thoughts on the matter, which I need to mull over a little more before sharing them with you. Watch this space for further developments.


I should mention that this week saw a repeat of the Saint Patrick's Day episode of OBG, in honor of Thanksgiving.

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But the participants were distinctly more engaging (and enthusiastic):

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Olivier and Emily

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Ana and Cathal

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A good time was had by all.

At the Post Office

Gentle readers. Pride goeth before a fall. So says the old saw, and its accuracy was once more demonstrated this morning, when I trooped along to the "Correos" office, bearing the first of my packages to be shipped home. As I waited on line (an entirely civilized experience at the Spanish post office, as in Spanish railway stations, as you just take a number when you first arrive, and wait to be called, thereby sparing everyone the agony of trying to figure out which line moves fastest), I noticed that the lady next to me had a "caja verde" just like the one I had assembled at home. To my chagrin, I noticed that her final assembled version did NOT look just like mine. Further comparison with the assembled model in the display case verified that I had indeed managed to screw things up, ending up with two external cardboard flaps that were evidently meant to have been tucked inside the box itself. What an idiot I felt!

Now, had we been in Germany, things could only have gone from bad to worse at that point. Rejection, public ridicule, probably even a fine for misuse of state-issued property. At the very least, I would have been forced to buy another box, cast out on the street to attempt to repack things there (because obviously packing a box on government property would contravene at least one by-law), then forced to stand in line all over again, as the bovine bourgeois Germans looked on in amused contempt.

Fortunately, here in Spain they do things a little differently. The fine postal employee behind the counter could not have been more helpful*. Once he diagnosed the problem, he made it abundantly clear that this was not just my problem, but his - and promptly went about solving it, with oodles of sticky tape and plenty of reassurance that lots of people made the same mistake (which I very much doubt, but I really appreciated his kindness in saying it). Three minutes later, we were done, and I was on my way. (Still trying to imagine any German bureaucrat even loaning me so much as a pen to write with, let alone half a roll of packing tape).

So, my first 7 kilograms of books are winging their way homeward. For a mere 50 euros. To put this in perspective, recall that it cost me 450 euros to ship 15 kilos by DHL last spring. And though it will take 10 days by post, it's not as if I will be needing any of those books any time soon. And yes, my next 7 kilograms are packed, in a correctly assembled box, ready to ship out tomorrow.

*: On the four or five occasions when I have visited the post office here in Madrid this visit, each of the employees I dealt with has been not only helpful, but friendly and genuinely determined to solve whatever issue concerned me. So this post is dedicated to those good folks. They really managed to make a difference in this visitor's day, something I don't take for granted.


Our featured item of the month is a delicacy purchased in Cadiz, known as a mantecado.

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Bearing the royal endorsement of none other than that old Grumpy McGrumperson, Felipe Segundo.

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At this point, I'd have to say things don't look particularly promising. Better have some emergency liquids on hand:

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Oh my God! It's indescribably bad. Like biting down on a cube of the caked ashes of ol' Felipe himself. How did they manage to make something so hideous? And do they have a deal with the local crematorium?

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The explanation becomes clear. I should have paid closer attention to the wrapper. Still, when it says "el mantecado mas antiguo del mundo", I didn't actually think they were referring to the particular one that I was just about to consume (read: "ingest, attempt to masticate, and spit out in a fit of coughing, as I desperately reach for the reviving mineral water").

But one has to admit that their choice of royal patron is an inspired one.