Saturday, April 21, 2007

Price updates

Not everything in Andalucía is a good value. Three examples: (to convert from € to the equivalent approximate dollar amount, just multiply by 1.40)

  1. Cost to have 3 weeks' worth of laundry washed, dried, and folded = 30 €
  2. Cost for one café con leche in Starbucks = 3.80 €
  3. Cost of one (meagre) scoop of Cherry Garcia at Ben and Jerry's = 2.90 €

Here, of course, it's Starbucks that are the most egregious offenders - somehow they again manage to take an item typically costing just under a Euro and quadruple the cost. The amazing thing is that they get away with it; the Starbucks stores in Seville were always packed, as is the one I've seen here in Granada.

Mind you, the price for doing all that laundry wasn't exactly cheap either - $42 would allow you to do many loads of laundry in the U.S. Even if you handed it in to have it done, I'd be surprised if it cost half as much in San Francisco. Not that the method of arriving at the price was particularly scientific - if it had a name it would be referred to as the Iberian squint technique.

At least, three weeks of clean laundry lasts for roughly three more weeks. One can only wonder why the robber barons of Starbucks get any repeat business at all.

Friday, April 20, 2007


I'm surprised nobody has asked yet. ¿How do you say "mainly on the plain" in Spanish?

I know that my discerning readership interprets this question in the intelligent, rather than the literal, sense. So I will answer the intelligent, not the literal question.

The management here at Mainly on the Plain takes such linguistic enquiries seriously. I am glad to be able to report that, following weeks of investigation by our top experts, we are now in a position to give a definitive answer on this question.

In the Spanish version of My Fair Lady, the rain-related phrase with which the sadistic Professor Higgins torments Eliza is the following

La lluvia in Sevilla es una maravilla

The plain people of Ireland: begob, there's a lot of them double-ls in that sentence.
The management: which is precisely, the point, you wretches.
The plain people of Ireland: Oh right. Of course. Very clever indeed. Smart boy wanted. Isn't that interesting?
The management: yes, isn't it? For once, we agree on something.


I know many of you must be wondering: "¿What if I would like to plan a motorcycling holiday in Andalucía? ¿Are helmets mandatory?"

Indeed they are, gentle reader, indeed they are. And if you read of the untimely demise of one middle-aged Irish blogging statistician, it will be because, convulsed with laughter, I fell into the path of an oncoming Vespa. Whose rider was smartly outfitted with the following, by far the most common choice among discerning Vespa-riders throughout Granada:

As yet, no foxes have been sighted. But I live in hope.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Coming clean

Time to come clean (note deft tie-in to preceding post) about something. You may have noticed my use of a little blogging device, in the form of imagined interjections by the so-called "plain people of Ireland", providing a kind of meta-commentary on the ongoing blog content.

Irish readers will recognize immediately that this device is in no way original. It was used, to considerable comic effect, by one of the geniuses of Irish literature, Flann O' Brien. Flann O' Brien is one of the pseudonyms used by Brian O' Nolan, who also published, for many years, a daily column (An Cruiskeen Lawn; anglicization of the Gaelic for "the full jug") in the Irish Times, under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen.

From Wikipedia:

Flann O'Brien is rightly considered a major figure in twentieth century Irish literature. The British writer Anthony Burgess was moved to say of him: "If we don't cherish the work of Flann O'Brien we are stupid fools who don't deserve to have great men. Flann O'Brien is a very great man." Burgess included At Swim-Two-Birds on his list of 99 Great Novels.

The full Wikipedia entry is here'Brien

My adoption of the device is intended in the spirit of pure homage to this most brilliant of Irish writers. If you have never read "The Third Policeman", order a copy right now, even before you finish reading this entry:

It's the funniest description of hell you will ever read in your life. Borrow, steal, or buy a copy now!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

¡Don Limpio!

Wednesday in Granada. A day of many small triumphs. I think anyone who has spent more than a few days in a foreign country probably knows what I mean when I say that one of the joys of being abroad is the huge sense of triumph that one can get from accomplishing even the most quotidian of tasks. Something as simple as buying an alarm clock. Or sending a package back to California. Because you are doing it in a foreign country. In a language not your own. You get this absurd sense of accomplishment. At least I do.

The flipside is that you also learn to take a somewhat different view of the normal activities that form the fabric of everyday life at home. The quotidian is no longer something to be taken for granted.

A case in point. Laundry. In Ireland, and in the U.S., there is a natural progression, for males, anyway:

  • Someone else worries about it
  • You bring it home at weekends and someone else worries about it
  • You learn the basics and do it in the nearest shared facility (college dormitory or public laundromat); you start to obsess about having enough quarters
  • You move up to a shared facility that doesn't need quarters (e.g. apartment complex or building)
  • Finally, you graduate to living in a space with an in-home washer-drier, after which you never really think consciously about laundry again.
  • Until the washer-drier goes on the fritz, at which point you are brought to a sharp realization of just how much you have been taking for granted.

Another way of being forced to realize just what you've been taking for granted is to travel or live in a foreign country for a while.

Take Spain, for example. Gentle reader, there is one thing I can state with certainty. You will not find the love of your life sitting in a Spanish laundromat. Not in Seville or Granada. Nor anywhere else in Spain, from what I am given to understand. This is a country without laundromats. The concept simply doesn't exist. How do I know this? As usual, for me, I found out more or less the hard way.

See, when you are traveling, there's a kind of grace period, where you first start to think about laundry in a general abstract "Gee, I really should do something about laundry before I run out of clean socks" kind of way. Eventually, the end of the grace period looms, when you realize that you need to do something about the laundry situation within the next two days, (maximum three if you relax standards slightly on the sock front). So now you walk the streets, consciously keeping your eyes peeled for a laundromat. Things start to seem weird: none of the likely-looking streets pan out.

There is an interesting, and useful, side-effect during this phase. You are forced to pay conscious attention to all the stores that you pass, and so you actually see what kind of stores there are. This gives you an interesting composite of the Granadan character. Clearly these are people who are so busy buying, renting, and selling apartments, visiting the nearest fruit store, bakery or bar, in between visits to the stationery store, peluqueria or salon de estetica that they have little time for such niceties as washing clothes. Results of my (unscientific) sample consisting of the block in which my apartment building is located. It's a rectangular block, each side being a commercial street, with the two short sides being more heavily trafficked than the longer sides; totals are for both sides of the street for each face of the block - got that?

The plain people of Ireland: That's probably a rhombus you're thinking of -'tis a very common mistake to mix up a rhombus and a rectangle. Are you sure those corners are all at 90 degrees?

The management: Oddly enough, peasants, for once your question is not complete rubbish.

The plain people of Ireland: That's Brother Jerome up at Saint Malachy's we can thank for that. A great man for the Euclid.

The management: But I think you mean a quadrilateral, not a rhombus. Not that it matters for the purposes of this story.

The plain people of Ireland: Begob you're right. Fair enough so. We're all ears.

Frequencies for the most common types of business:

  • Inmobiliara (real estate offices) = 6
  • Restaurants/bars = 4
  • Pastry shops/bakeries = 4
  • Hair/beauty salons = 3
  • Fruit stores = 3
  • Stationery stores = 3

Some time on Tuesday, it began to dawn on me that maybe the reason I wasn't stumbling across any laundromats on my travels was because there weren't any out there. A quick check of the yellow pages and an online search served only to confirm this suspicion.

So I asked the teacher. Unfortunately, I chose to ask María (names changed to protect the innocent), not - as it turned out - the most empathetic of respondents. Her initial reaction was to make me repeat the question twice, as she subjected me to the kind of pitying gaze one might cast upon someone with Tourette's. Finally, acknowledgement that perhaps my question might have some legitimate basis. But then, in the most dismissively condescending tone imaginable:

"But why would anyone need to use public washing machines. Every home in Spain comes with a washing machine", shuffling her papers to move on from a topic which was clearly of no concern to her washing-machine-containing-home-loving self.

Somewhat taken aback by this complete lack of empathy, I pointed out that, indeed my current temporary lodging contained a washing machine (though no visible drier), but that it also came equipped with seven other boarding students and a dragon lady whose very first sentences to me had been about the need to conserve water in Granada.

This conversation led nowhere fast. Fortunately, my compatriot Cathal came to the rescue this morning, by directing me to one of two known places in Granada (if you aren't staying in a hotel) where one can drop off laundry for later pick-up. At 16:30, as they reopened after siesta, I was there with my bulging bag full of 3 weeks' of accumulated dirty laundry.

And, gentle readers, you will be relieved to know that a mere 4 hours later, I was marching home to Señora Rosa's, with enough clean clothes to last me at least to Madrid. For tonight, at least, I am the Spanish equivalent of "Mr Clean".

Your faithful correspondent,

Don Limpio de Granada.

At the post office

The post office can be a scary place, especially for foreigners:

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Day of reckoning

Sorry folks, I can't even to begin to make the experience of filing taxes in three separate jurisdictions (Federal, California, and New Jersey) from a distance of 6000 miles from home seem anything other than exhausting. I would like to thank all of the people who helped track down information at the last minute, and who pulled me through the experience.

Perhaps the only light note was when I googled to try to figure out why the filing deadline this year was April 17th. The reason involves some arcane provision about holidays inWashington DC; the amusing part is that the Federal Government was apparently unable to figure out its own regulations in enough time to print the correct deadline on the relevant forms and (quite sensibly) didn't bother to have them re-printed.

The plain people of Ireland: What's this? Nothing yesterday, and two paragraphs of self-pitying rubbish today? When do we get our refund?
The management: Funny you should ask, fools. I had the same question myself today. Must be that time of year. Get in line, like everyone else.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Church, churros & chocolate

This morning I got up around 8:30, put on my snazziest threads, and headed over to the cathedral for Sunday morning mass. Not out of an enormously developed sense of devotion, I regret to say, but for two slightly less admirable reasons. First, in the spirit of sociological inquiry - I wanted to see what it would be like. Second, I wanted to see inside the cathedral, and this avoided the 6€ fee that is charged during the week.

The powers that be are obviously wise to this second reason, because in fact not all of the cathedral is open to worshippers on Sunday morning. Nonetheless, what I saw was interesting. As was the mass. Since I've been seeing one touching display of family togetherness after another since getting to Spain - in the streets, in the cafés, in the bars at night - three generations out together, often as not, I fully expected mass to be a multi-generational experience as well. Boy was I wrong. At fifty, I was one of the youngest congregation members in the church. Attending mass appears to be something that young (and middle-aged) Spaniards appear happy to leave to the older generation.

Or maybe I just picked too early a time. This thought occurred to me when I got back to Señora Rosa's shortly after 11am to find that nobody else in the house was up yet. I don't know whether to be impressed or shocked, because I have never considered myself a morning person.

One other disappointment at mass was the sermon. I was mentally settled in for a good 20-minute job, even had my little Moleskine (hi Dr Heidi P!) notebook to jot down good vocabulary words. What did we get? Two minutes, maximum.

To console myself on the way home I had to stop at a churrería, for some churros and chocolate. I took a picture, so that my blog-readers could share vicariously.

Churrería almost displaces murcielago as my favorite word of the moment. In part, because it's so much fun to watch my charming classmate Charlotte, from Lille, wrinkle her nose as she tries to pronounce it. But then I remember that murcielago is the only word in Spanish containing all five vowels (or so I´ve been told). Also deserving honorable mention this week, michelinitos, meaning love handles.

Plain people of Ireland: this Charlotte girl, does she have a sister?
The management: Silence, curs!

Books and such

While I remember to do so, I want to mention two books that I brought with me to Spain, both of which I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in Spain, generally, and in Andalucía in particular.

The first, published in February of this year, is by Giles Tremlett, and is called "Ghosts of Spain: Travels through Spain and its Secret Past".

From the blurb on -

The appearance, more than sixty years after the Spanish Civil War ended, of mass graves containing victims of Francisco Franco’s death squads finally broke what Spaniards call “the pact of forgetting”—the unwritten understanding that their recent, painful past was best left unexplored. At this charged moment, Giles Tremlett embarked on a journey around the country and through its history to discover why some of Europe’s most voluble people have kept silent so long.

Ghosts of Spain is the fascinating result of that journey. In elegant and passionate prose, Tremlett unveils the tinderbox of disagreements that mark the country today. Delving into such emotional questions as who caused the Civil War, why Basque terrorists kill, why Catalans hate Madrid, and whether the Islamist bombers who killed 190 people in 2004 dreamed of a return to Spain’s Moorish past, Tremlett finds the ghosts of the past everywhere. At the same time, he offers trenchant observations on more quotidian aspects of Spanish life today: the reasons, for example, Spaniards dislike authority figures, but are cowed by a doctor’s white coat, and how women have embraced feminism without men noticing.

Drawing on the author’s twenty years of experience living in Spain, Ghosts of Spain is a revelatory book about one of Europe’s most exciting countries.

More information at the amazon link here:

The second book is older. I brought it with my on my 2003 trip to Spain, and brought it with me again this time. The author is Maria Rosa Menocal, and the book is "The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain" .

More information at: