Saturday, April 14, 2007

Songs without words

Given the - ahem - slightly pedestrian nature of the previous post, (the plain people of Ireland: you can say that again) I feel obliged to finish the evening with something a little more contemplative.

During the daytime here en españa, it's all about the words. That's pretty much the point of this trip - I'm here to learn the language. Unlike during my teen years, when I used to osmose German vocabulary with a facility that irritated the hell out of my classmates, this time I actually have to work at it a little bit. So I read my carefully chosen articles in El Páis (hint: every Thursday they have a special section consisting of translated articles of general interest from The New York Times, these are a terrific source of vocabulary words), I walk around muttering words I like under my breath, or - I can't believe I'm admitting this - I make up little nonsense rhymes, centering on my particular favorite of the moment. This week's particular favorite is murcielago (Spanish for bat), if you must know, and my little song is none of your business, thank you very much. A blogger needs some privacy.

Oh, all right then, if you must know, here's an excerpt:

.... somos los murcielagos sevillanas
Comimos las manzanas
y a veces de la carne
De las brujas catalanas....

Just as I did during my last trip to Spain, at about the two-week mark I reached the point where it seemed as if the words had taken over my brain completely. I would lie in bed at night, trying to fall asleep, but the words would keep racing through my brain. Fortunately, I knew what to do. I went to el Corte Inglés and bought myself a fine Discman (at rock-bottom prices, presumably because the era of the iPod already threatens obsolescence). To go with it, many fine CD's of classical music. Strictly orchestral stuff, because - you've guessed it - no words!

This is why, every night for the last couple of weeks, I've been renewing my acquaintance with the nine Beethoven symphonies (16.10€ for the set of 5 CD's). Accuse me of Eurocentric, dead-white-male-loving cultural chauvinism if you must, but let me go on record here as saying that a universe in which one can have access to one of the pinnacles of human achievement for about twenty bucks and change ain't all bad.

Maybe it's a result of just being in a different milieu, maybe all of one's senses are heightened while traveling (see the earlier "fruits of the forest" post), maybe active listening during the daytime has a residual effect late at night. Whatever the reason, I find myself listening to this music with a heightened sensitivity, discovering it with fresh ears, as it were. And having a hard time describing what I mean without resorting to the stalest of clichés.

So I will finish with a concrete example. Last Sunday night - Easter Sunday. It's been a long day. I´m a little wiped out. Lying there listening to the second movement of the Eroica, I don't think I've ever heard anything as desolate, or as haunting. There's no escaping the despair that permeates this music. Except, of course, that he does. He brings you down about as low as it seems possible to go and still go on, and then lifts you back up. With those simply awesome variations through to the triumph at the end. Though I've listened to this particular symphony dozens of times, I've never found it anywhere as thrilling. Shivers up the spine.

And now you know why I will never work as a music critic. The point, if there is one, has something to do with a heightening of one's senses while traveling. Or openness to new ways of perceiving. I don't know. Go figure. No pretty bow around this post - sorry.

With that, I bid you good night.

Escape route

It's a glorious day here in Andalucía, so I spent the afternoon wandering around the Albaicín. Definitely not as flat as Seville, so a little harder on the feet. For those of you who sent e-mails wondering about the lodging situation, I can finally report some progress. The hotel situation in Granada turned out to be a little tighter than I had anticipated, so it proved difficult to get a hotel for two weeks uninterrupted. The only possibility seemed to be the most expensive place in town, where the snootiness of the reception-desk personnel didn't particularly inspire me to want to give them my business. (What part of the word "hospitality" do you suppose these people don't understand when they give out attitude like they do? It's always puzzled me. You would think that the more expensive the lodging, the more helpful the staff, but the inverse relationship seems to be the norm more often than not). Anyway, to cut a long story short, since I didn't want to have to change hotels once I move, I ended up settling for spending the last 10 days of my time here in Granada at the friendly 3-star hotel around the corner from my current lodgings. It will be easy to transfer next Friday; I will have stayed the best part of 2 face-saving weeks en la casa de señor Rosa, and once I've moved to the hotel, I won't have to move again until leaving for Madrid.

I also made some useful progress on the question of getting from Granada to Madrid. Initially, I had some idea at the back of my head that I would do so by train, but given that my dealings thus far with RENFE, the Spanish railway network, have been fraught with the wrong kind of excitement, I was only too open to other options. It turns out that Granada does have an airport, albeit a very regional one. Indeed, its provincial nature was pooh-poohed by more than one of the teachers during this week's classes. Basically, the message was, unless you are flying to Madrid or Barcelona, don't waste your time. But.... I do want to fly to Madrid. In that case, they had to admit, it might be worth a try.

¡Bingo! When I tried (or whatever it's called) and similar sites, they all came up with Iberia flights in the range of 120€. Sparing you the gory details, I'm happy to report that I now have an e-ticket from Granada to Madrid which cost only $49. Given it cost me almost 30€ to get from Seville to Córdoba and back by train (for evil-RENFE-duplicity-related reasons), this seems like a pretty good value.

So, for now, I am pleased that arrangements to reach the next stage of my adventure are in place, leaving me free to enjoy the rest of my time in Granada without worry. And with only five more mystery dinners to endure at Casa Rosa.

The plain people of Ireland: You expect us to care about this kind of stuff, do you?
The management: No, you ignorant peasants, I do not. But some of my real friends might. Now be quiet, you whining wretches, before I set the dogs on you.

Window shopping in Granada

Finally, a few more photos. For the full set (the good, the bad, and the ugly) see the link top right.

I like the jaunty, brook-no-argument, tone of this menu. Espaguetti to the sailor, codfish to the La Riojan, skipped mushrooms. But one cannot help wondering about the slightly ominous sounding Gulas of the North. Any relationship to the Wicked Witch of the West?

Friday, April 13, 2007

The kindness of strangers

Friday the 13th in Granada. About 4pm. I'm having a late lunch (class runs until 3) in a café on the Gran Vía, fairly close to the cathedral. Not too many people in the café - myself, a couple of people at the counter, a Canadian family at the table next to mine, three workers on break at one of the other tables. The place is small, maybe six tables in all, but welcoming. The waiter has been very patient with my Spanish, correcting me ever so gently.

I´m feeling at home, so when I'm done with my bocadilla, I linger, reading El Páis, which I find is at a level that I can generally understand, with only a little fumbling for the dictionary. There's an article on Kurt Vonnegut, which I read with interest. augmenting my vocabulary with such words as pianola, pájaro de celda, matadero cinco, and - of course - desayuno de campeones. Suddenly, I find myself tearing up, noticeably. Unexpectedly, because I would never have considered myself an avid fan of Vonnegut, though I have read most of his books, a long time ago. But somehow I suddenly feel his loss keenly, perhaps not so much the man, but what he stood for. Or I'm just a long way from home, and tired. Or a little of both. Idiotically, now I´m actually sitting there in the café crying, willing myself to stop, but not entirely succeeding.

Then, a voice, from the next table, Canadian. "Is everything OK?" Curious, but with a note of genuine concern. I gesture, and try to explain the Vonnegut thing. Through some kind of cosmic grace, the reaction is more than I could have expected. "Oh, gosh, I know exactly how you feel. When we heard the news yesterday, I was all shaken up too. He was just such an important figure for people our age." All of this from the mother. Then, unexpectedly, from her husband. "Here, why don't you come and join us - we´re just sitting here for a while, taking in the view".

For some reason, this kindness threatens to unhinge me altogether, but I pull my chair over to their table. The waiter approaches, asks if everything is OK. We say yes. But he reappears a minute later, with a brandy, which he puts in front of me with a flourish. Courtesy of the house.

We chat for ten or fifteen minutes, pleasantries mostly. I drink the brandy, pay my tab. We go our separate ways.

The kindness of strangers. An unexpected gift on a rainy afternoon in Granada. I am blessed.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

¡ ya basta !

Warning: rant directly ahead.

So, I am aware of the bizarre health claims made on behalf of cruciferous vegetables, broccoli in particular. This doesn't mean I like to eat them. Sure, if I slather on enough ranch dressing, I can choke down a few - what's that vile word - florets of uncooked broccoli. With the cooked stuff, it's touch and go at best. If I remind myself that it could be worse (think brussels sprouts), I might just manage a mouthful or two, before cunningly hiding the rest under the mashed potatoes, or stuffing. But, let's be quite clear, where cruciferous vegetables are concerned, I have certain quite well-defined limits.

And - I can barely bring myself to type this word without throwing up in my mouth a little (borrowing a nauseating phrase to describe a nauseating concept, and an even more nauseating vegetable) - cauliflower simply goes beyond the pale. Surely one of nature's bastard spawn (of broccoli and what - tapioca, semolina, tadpole fetuses?), there is simply neither excuse nor justification for this malformed birth defect of a 'vegetable'.

As for the notion that one should somehow allow this vegetal ordure into the kitchen to be prepared for some unsuspecting victim to eat, only a deranged person could think that this is acceptable behavior. No matter how much mystery white sauce you slather on there.

So, señora Rosa, dueña de casa of my nightmares, what I want to know is - just what diabolical connection do you have to the demons of deprivation, to allow you to zero in so perfectly on the one item of "food" in this world which actually causes my gorge to rise. ¿Do you want me to vomit in your kitchen? Because, I swear to God, bruja - keep this up and next time I will.

But guess what, lady. ¿Do you know how many napkins it took for me to wrap the white-sauce covered cauliflower-offal so that I could dispose of in the garbage, where your demonic powers would not sniff it out? ¡Three! That's right, señora. Mark that down in your little notebook.

I'll be in my room, trying not to throw up in the wastebasket. Planning my escape.

Anyone out there who wants to mount a defence of cauliflower - don´t waste your time and effort. I will delete your post without compunction, you sick twisted prevert.

Religion and Money

I know, I know - two traditionally taboo topics, which any blogger with a sense of self-preservation should probably learn to avoid. I´ll keep my remarks brief.

Yesterday, the internet café was populated largely by Mormons. Without deliberately eavesdropping, I was nonetheless quickly able to figure out that next Monday must be the deadline for signing up for fall courses at Brigham Young, as there was much discussion of the relative merits and demerits of various elective courses. Also of the relative pros and cons of carrying out one's mission in Sevilla versus Granada (clear consensus that Granada is preferable, because of its more compact size, notwithstanding the steepness of the terrain in some sectors). What fascinated me was the discussion about which course one should take to satisfy BY's mandatory "diversity requirement". Having worked in corporate America for over 20 years, my natural inclination is to be slightly leery of "diversity requirements" myself, but given the nature of the conversation, I have to say I found myself rooting strongly for the university in this case. The casual racism of some of the comments, and apparent ignorance of, or indifference to other cultures was frankly breathtaking, particularly here in Granada, once the center of Menocal's "Ornament of the World". Unfortunately, for some of these clean-cut young men, one had the distinct sense that a single course in fulfilment of a well-meaning diversity requirement was not going to be enough to make much of an impact.

While writing the preceding paragraph, I realise, of course, that the issue has very little to do with religion, but is rather one of mono- versus multiculturalism. I can't really wrap this vignette up with a pithy bow, so forgive me if I leave it at that, and move on to this morning's incident, which also left me a little baffled.

As a child of privilege, I have learned to be extremely respectful of frugality in others. I am fully aware that very few people share the advantages that I've been lucky to have in life, which are not limited to having been born into a loving, upper-middle class family, and getting a terrific education. For instance, I was lucky enough to receive a talent (for mathematics) which, when developed, allowed me to choose a profession that afforded considerable financial benefits. I won't belabor the point - I've been lucky, and I'm generally smart enough to count my blessings, and know that not everyone is as lucky.

Differences in background mean that people have different attitudes toward money, and different views of the virtue of frugality. Without wishing to offend anyone here, I will say that travelling with someone whose views about money are way different from one's own is likely to be difficult. (And without having direct experience in the matter, I am guessing that the same thing is likely to be true about marriage).

So I would never say that my attitudes toward money are "right", because there is no universal "right" in territory as complicated as financial matters. Nonetheless, cases of extreme frugality, by which I mean frugality taken to extremes that seem to defy commonsense, baffle me. A case in point. Last night I stayed up reading until about 1:30am , so before turning in I gave myself mental permission to skip today's first class. Accordingly, I waited until the hordes of my emaciated fellow-boarders headed out to class at 8:55 before making my appearance in the kitchen. As luck would have it, Madame Rosa shuffled in just as I had put the bread in the toaster, so I started mentally to dust off a few little nuggets of small talk. When the meltdown occurred.

Not being particularly quick in the mornings, it took me a while (a) to figure out that a meltdown was occurring (b) that it was not directed at me, and (c) - much harder - what the proximate cause actually was. This was over an hour ago, and I've been puzzling over it ever since.

See, every evening before retiring, Madame R lays everyone's breakfast place - individual juice for everyone, communal stale toasting bread, margarine and jam, teabag for Joey, coffee for me (to be microwaved, yum!), communal paper napkins. Ay, there, apparently was the rub. The number of paper napkins is apparently precisely calibrated to the number of students. And someone, prior to my showing up in the kitchen, had used two, instead of the one to which they were by law and birthright entitled. Leaving me napkinless (a state of affairs of which I had been blissfully unaware, because - gentle readers - I assure you that my use of the word "paper napkin" to describe the wafer-thin wisp of tissue in question is being generous here - we're not talking triple-ply Bounty here). I was not bothered in the least by this. Rosa, on the other hand, as she unlocked the cupboard where the napkins were kept, peeled off another to give to me, went into an all-but-catatonic state, cradling the remaining napkins to her bosom, as if they were €100 notes. As she did this, she appeared to be keening under her breath. With horror, I realised that she appeared to be repeating the names of the other student boarders, presumably obsessing about who the likely culprit might have been.

I finished my breakfast in record time this morning. Because, to be honest, I found the whole thing a little bit scary. It may be time to cut my losses and move to plan B (the hotel option).

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Huddling in Granada

The more evil the weather, the more meandering the blog entries. Because, realistically, what are my options on a brutally cold, viciously rainy night in Granada, one that's reminiscent of Cork in late November? I could huddle back at Madame Rosa's, exchanging hunger anecdotes with the emaciated Dutchwomen. I could huddle in my room and watch inane Spanish game shows, which seem to rule the airwaves until 9pm at least. I could take in the movie that's showing at the theater down the street. Oh, wait, let's see - it's a comedy, by Lars von Trier. Let me repeat that, in case you missed it. A comedy. By Lars von Trier.

Three words. Breaking The Waves. That Lars von Trier. You know, suddenly, updating the blog seems like a fine option indeed. So here I am, huddled over a terminal, bringing you the latest from bone-chilling Andalucia. Trust me, there's not a soul in here who isn't huddling right now.

Let me check my little Moleskine notebook (with a big shout-out to noted urban nomad and Moleskineer, Dr Heidi P!). What did I want to tell you this evening? I'll take Spanish bureaucracies for €800, please, Alex.

If you were thinking, uh-oh, here comes a tirade, think again! The tirade comes later on, and you will be given ample warning to allow you to bail out if that's what you would like.

Let me start with the Spanish postal system, or Correos. I have nothing but the highest praise for the fine bureaucrats who make this system work. Because work it does - in my experience thus far, flawlessly. I have mailed several packages to the U.S., a bunch of postcards, dealt with the post offices in both Seville and Granada, and have met with nothing but courtesy, efficiency, and genuine helpfulness. I realize even as I type this that it makes for a somewhat boring blog entry, but credit where credit is due. You have nothing to fear, gentle reader, should fate require you to take a trip to your local Spanish post office.

Warning: imminent tirade. Directly ahead. Beginning now.

Those of you who enjoy a good rant will be relieved to know that there is indeed another kind of Spanish bureaucracy. One that truly merits the clichéd designation "Kafkaesque". Old Franz would be proud of this particular bunch. But we must look to another writer to find words adequate to capture the true horror.

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here

These words do not, to my knowledge, appear over the entrance to RENFE offices throughout Spain. But they should. (to be continued)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Travel - does it really broaden the mind?

I won't keep you in suspense. ¡Yes, yes! A thousand times, yes. Of course it does. Everything they told you is true. And a few things they probably didn't tell you as well. But, of course, that's why you're reading this blog. Because I will spill the beans on the stuff that you can't find in the travel guides.

"Spill the beans" ...... an unfortunate choice of metaphor, perhaps, in view of this evening's lentil stew letdown. But let's not go there. Suffice it to say that there are some scenes of Dickensian deprivation too delicate to be captured in this, or any, blog. But 'tis a sad scene indeed, gentle readers, when one's dinnertime reverie is interrupted by the delighted shriek of a rail-thin fellow-boarder upon sight of a couple of rock-hard, week old crusts "Oh great! There's bread tonight!", as she and her equally emaciated compatriot fall upon it with the alacrity of two particularly famished locusts. I, of course, have the wherewithal to augment the meagre workhouse fare with provisions obtained elsewhere. But what are my moral responsibilities to the other, less fortunate boarders, who - gaunt-faced and hollow-cheeked - glide noiselessly like wraiths through the bleak corridors of Señor Rosa's Granadan outpost of DoTheBoys Hall? If I attempt to smuggle them in some extra victuals, will Señor Rosa exert some dreadful revenge? (Note to self: cut back on the Dickens intake before next road trip). For now, we draw a veil over these sad boardinghouse vignettes....

Because nobody likes a whiney blogger. Let's shift gear, and let me offer you a couple of eternal travel banalities instead.

1. Umbrellas and travel.

It's a given that you will forget to bring your own. Also, that you will live to regret this omission, probably within the first 48 hours of leaving home, while your defences are still down, your system confused by jetlag, and your reflexes groggy. You will stumble forth into the pouring rain, in a strange city, surrounded by people who speak a language with which you are still dangerously unfamiliar. In your pocket are notes and coins that look and feel suspiciously like Monopoly money. You will think to yourself: "I can do this. I can buy an umbrella in Spanish (Finno-Hungarian, Serbo-Croat, Mongolian dialect of choice)".

Indeed you can. Unfortunately, the sad law of the road is that you will not make a good choice during this purchase. You may come away flushed with the triumph of temporary success (because - look, ma - an umbrella!). But in your haste, unless you are a truly seasoned road warrior, you will forget the cardinal rule of umbrella valuation, which is that

durability trumps portability

In your foolish, lemming-like, haste to acquire an umbrella that is portable (you visualize yourself boarding planes, trains, buses, boats, hovercraft, funicular railroad cars, taxicabs, unencumbered by the bulk of truly effective rain protection), you will forget the basic fact, that a portable piece of inferior crap is still a piece of inferior crap.

And so, inevitably, days or weeks later (the day will come), you will find yourself in some unfamiliar city (like, for instance, Cordóba), where an ill-timed gust of wind, or a nudge from another pedestrian's entirely superior umbrella, causes the intrinsic inferior crappiness of your purchase to blossom forth in some altogether hideous fashion, typically involving the shearing of cheap metal and the subsequent exposure of some seriously dangerous sharp pointy bits.

At this point, unless you are a complete moron, you will follow the only sensible course of action: immediately seek out the nearest wastebasket, deposit the entrails of your former pride and joy, find the nearest store of quality, and do what you should have done in the first place, which is to buy the largest, sturdiest, umbrella in the store.

Then retire to a local hostelry, order a stiff drink, and ponder why it is that you seem to have to learn this lesson over and over again, every three or four years, throughout your life.

One other umbrella-related travel observation is that the guys on the street who appear miraculously to sell them to passers-by all come from Senegal. It is not well-understood why this is the case, but it does appear to be a universal law, at least here in Spain.

2. Laws of the internet café

Any internet café of appreciable size will have among its employees one of each of the following distinct types. For reasons which are not entirely clear, each will be male, in his twenties. They may or may not be related. It is in your best interest to figure out who is who as early as possible, for obvious reasons.

The surly guy who knows about computers:
this guy may ultimately provide you some useful help, but will exact the same type of emotional price that you associate with the worst kind of tech support prima donna at your last workplace. Between the eye-rolling, muttering under his breath and resolute refusal to acknowledge your efforts to speak the language, he may be more trouble than he's worth. Avoid, except in case of real emergency.

The surly guy who knows nothing about computers:
this guy is a total jerk all around, and worthless, to boot. He will waste your time, try to make you feel incompetent, and answer any question you might pose in whatever language in pidgin English intended to make you feel small. Avoid at all costs. If he speaks to you, simply ignore him.

The friendly guy who knows about computers:
this is your guy. Once you figure out which guy he is, you will never need to bother with his loser buddies. He is the guy who will come crawl under the desk to make sure your camera is properly connected to the computer, who will listen patiently to your questions without interruption, who will laugh and compliment your Spanish. If it is a family operation, he will be the youngest brother, though one might have predicted the middle child to fill this role. Stick with him, and you won't go far wrong. (He will also be the cutest, but one has to bear in mind the possibility that this is just projection).

Logic suggests the existence, in theory at least, of the fourth possibility, the friendly incompetent, but experience to date does not bear this out.

unos snigletes nuevos

"Nuevos" may be redundant, but here goes. Inspired by the warm breezes of Andalucía -

  • toreador - a member of the Tori Spelling fan club
  • matador - a member of the Matt Damon fan club
  • picador - what Monte Hall might say to a contestant

The plain people of Ireland: "This is an outrage. We want our money back. Yer man is really scraping the barrel today".

The management: "Refunds graciously offered. Now, how much was it you paid to read this again?"

Monday, April 9, 2007

Griping in Granada

In brief, here's my gripe. In every city of any size, anywhere in the world, one of the earliest survival skills one learns is how to be a pedestrian. That is to say, one recognizes that the orderly ebb and flow of pedestrian traffic requires that each member of the crowd make certain accommodations, that people learn to anticipate and to allow for the movement of others; eventually, adjustment to the pace of traffic becomes as automatic as breathing, or walking.

Apparently nobody thought to mention to the fine citizenry of Granada the advantages that flow from good pedestrian behavior. Frankly, I question the right of some of these people to walk the streets, so hazardous is their behavior to themselves and others. I'm not referring to jay-walking here, which one simply accepts as a normal facet of Spanish life. No, it's the random stops and starts, right there on the sidewalk, for no conceivable reason. The completely unheralded 90-degree turn, without so much as a glance in the direction taken. The trajectory that appears designed to mimic nothing but pure Brownian motion.

Get a grip, people! This is not an exercise in statistical mechanics. In any other city in the world your licence to walk the pavements would be taken away from you if you continued in this fashion. And for God's sake, caballero, watch what you are doing with that umbrell.....OW!

(editor's note: the remainder of this post has reluctantly been cut short, as being inconsistent with content guidelines for

N0 8 D0

It would be remiss of me to move on from Seville without including at least one image of the ubiquitous N0 8 D0 sign that adorns anything even remotely to do with the city. "Ubiquitous" is not an exaggeration: it's on municipal buildings, on the buses, on police cars, public toilets, possibly tattooed on the mayor, there's no getting away from it.
What could it possibly mean? Well, pull up a chair for a little semiotics lesson, the only one you will encounter in this blog, I feel reasonably safe in promising. According to my superior guidebook, the explanation is as follows. The sign means "No me ha dejado", in English, "She has not deserted me", words attributed to Alfonso the Wise (no comment) after the city of Seville remained loyal to him during a dispute with his son Sancho (no information available on the astuteness, or otherwise, of Sancho, but I think we can draw our own conclusions) during the time of the Reconquest.
Here's the fun part. What you might first interpret as a figure 8 is, upon closer inspection, a stylized skein of wool, the Spanish word for which is madeja. Hence No m'a deja do.
If you don't find that even a little bit interesting, maybe this blog's not for you.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Easter Sunday in Granada

Things are pretty uneventful so far, but the main point of this post is simply to say that I am in Granada. Managed to get up at six, to drag myself to make the 7am train; after a little siesta to make up for lost sleep, found this highly superior internet cafe within 10 minutes on my stroll. Now, if only the network of cash machines would relent and stop giving me the same message, that they are unable to disburse cash "for temporary technical reasons", I'd feel a little more at home.

But (touching wood), so far so good. Granada appears to be quite a bit smaller than Seville, and not quite as obsessively clean, but arriving on a major holiday is probably not likely to show any city in its best light. I'm just happy to be here safely.

Wishing anyone reading this a happy Easter, without too much chocolatey indulgence.