Friday, April 17, 2009

Drogging While Blunk

Well, gentle readers, we knew it would come to this. But I feel that I can retain a certain amount of dignity by pointing to the fact that there have been 507 posts, written while I was completely sober, before this one. Where I am definitely - hic! - not.

There are two clearly identifiable factors which have led to this situation. In no particular order, they are:

april_17 001

Alex, my absolutely charming Parisian classmate with the unpronounceable Basque surname,

delirium tremens 002

Any beer which features dancing pink elephants on the bottle is not to be taken lightly.

Anyhow, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to join Alex for a farewell beer or three after class. After three inferior Spanish beers, it seemed even more sensible to continue our drinking session in the apartment with some infinitely superior Belgian beer, before meeting up with some of the other students at eight o' clock to continue drinking.

In retrospect, it might have been a good idea to build in more food opportunities into our plan.

But not to worry, eight hours later, I am home safe and sound. (Alex and the others were last seen in some delightful, nameless, smoky bar in the Lavapiés district).

Why blog in an obviously intoxicated state? Well, because, for one reason or another, I can't remember when I've had as much fun as I've had this week. With today being a particular highlight. I am happy to be heading home, because two months away is a long time. But it seems important to record for posterity, just how much of a blast I've had here in Madrid. It's been a gift, the entire time.

And if I can't take the time out to acknowledge that on this blog, then I shouldn't be blogging in the first place.

Another happy note is that when Alex saw Elsie,

Elsie looking ... well... bovine

it was love at first sight. So that I can now leave Madrid, knowing that Elsie will be left in a loving home.

I am *so* happy right now. (And not nearly as drunk as I pretend to be. But definitely tipsy).

My flight leaves Madrid tomorrow at around 4:30 pm. God willing, I should arrive back in San Francisco on Sunday evening, after breaking my journey by staying overnight chez Paddy in Alexandria.

Signing out for this particular blogstage.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Kermit and Pooh go for a Ride

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Tales of the Pampas (Search Engine Poetry)

Poetry constructed using only search engine terms by which people arrived at this blog. The only modification I have made is to change the punctuation in a few places.

1. Speak to me Jimmy !!!

Tony's fat.
Pig of the sea.
"What would I look like 4 stone lighter?"
The unfeasibly tall Greek billionaire.
Sinuous trophy wife.

2. On the Pampas Vocabulary Activities

Reina Sofia metrosexual,
Jet lagged hamster,
Static strips for motion sickness,
Raves on the pampas.
Sweaty men.
Beef extract.
Pampas meat.

Pampas meat?
Guinea pigs, baby!!!

3. The Case of the Marmalade Cat

Los Gatos deaths.
Desiccation syndrome.
Bagpiper's lung fungus.
Fat coma.
Caisson disease constipation.
Camilla Windsor accident.
Marmalade cat.
Cat of doom.

4. Does Travel Broaden the Mind or is it just a Waste of Time and Money?

Four reasons why travelling broaden the mind.
Raccoons in space.
Guanajuato strip clubs.
Hello Kitty, Chapel Hill.
Segovia aquaducks.

5. Mainly on the Plain

Pandas in action.
Squid and frog.
Two-headed bunny.
Doctor Ruth.
Traceable jackalope.
Puddy tats.
Javelina siege.
Itzcuintli dog with me.

Hideous, ugly, animals.
Keep track of your flock.

Ethel the aardvark goes quantity surveying.
Don Quixote goes to the movies.

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain
And there is love,
But also pain.
And the rain.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Susan Boyle

Someone over on the Salon TableTalk board alerted me to this link:

Two years ago, I blogged about Paul Potts, who went on to win that year's "Britain´s Got Talent" contest. The video in the link has that same heartwarming quality - you may tear up a bit watching it. The best part is watching the judges' reactions.

Thanks to Inara for pointing me to the link in question.

Streets of Malasaña

I have created a new Flickr photoset here . Almost all of the photos were taken on my way to and from school.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

The cost of living

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the economic crisis ("la crisis") affecting Spain, and suggested that its effects were not all that obvious here in Madrid. On a related note, I thought it might be interesting to provide some anecdotal data about the cost of living here, from a personal point of view.

The first thing to note is that the exchange rate is a little more favorable now than it was two years ago. Given that prices of many items appear not to have changed perceptibly (perhaps a 5% increase in things like the price of a newspaper, cup of coffee, or a beer, which is offset by the improvement in the exchange rate), I have no sense that things have gotten more expensive. In fact, since I had paid for my three main expenses - travel to and from Spain, seven weeks of classes, and two months rental of the apartment - upfront, the amount that I spend weekly is relatively low. Definitely lower than my day-to-day expenses in San Francisco (though obviously certain monthly expenses in SF - mortgage, utilities, phone and DSL service, health insurance and the like - continue in my absence).

But daily expenditures here don't amount to all that much. I generally have breakfast in the break between my first two classes - 2€ for coffee and a pastry. Then, at 3pm, after my conversation class is finished, it's time for lunch (my favorite couple of hours in the day). A couple of days a week I will generally eat lunch with some of the other students, or some of the teachers in the school; three days a week I eat lunch on my own, with time to read the newspaper at leisure and mark my vocabulary words. Lunch in Madrid is definitely the best value going. Almost every restaurant or bar offers a fixed price, three-course meal, beverage included, for somewhere between 9 and 12€ (1 euro = roughly $1.30). Often, I will finish at around 4:45 or so, which leaves a couple of hours until my 7pm culture class. Having eaten a full lunch during the day, going out to dinner seems pointless, so I generally pick up the makings of a light meal to prepare at home (maybe another 5€). Which ends up at around $25 a day for food. Going to the movies is also fairly cheap (5 to 7€, depending on the time of day). The newspaper is 1.10€ during the week, double that on Sunday. The metro, and city buses, are a steal - you can get a 10-trip ticket for less than 7€. So that I seem to end up using the cash machine far less often here than at home.

Hotels are also pretty reasonable. Obviously, it's possible to spend a lot of money, if you choose a particularly fancy hotel. But, to give a reference point, the Ateneo, the three-star hotel where Paddy stayed during both visits here, which is right near the city center (but very quiet), offers a double room, single occupancy, for just 75 to 80€ a night (the desk guy was so smitten with Paddy that he comped her several free breakfasts at the buffet, though it technically wasn't included in her room rate).

So, if you haven't yet made travel plans this year, maybe you should consider España.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Ruthless Rhymes for Easter

Little Willie

Little Willie, feeling mean
Pushed his sister through a screen
Mother stopped his innovations
Said it made for strained relations.

Willie and three other brats
Ate up all the Rough-On-Rats;
Papa said, when Mama cried,
"Don't worry, dear, they'll die outside."


Late last night I slew my wife,
Stretched her on the parquet flooring;

I was loath to take her life,

But I had to stop her snoring.

Calculating Clara

O'er the rugged mountain's brow

Clara threw the twins she nursed,

And remarked, "I wonder now

Which will reach the bottom first?"

"Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes"
"Col. D. Streamer" (pseudonym of Harry Graham)

La Crisis

So, although Thursday and Friday were official holidays (and Madrid was deserted, making me doubly glad that I didn't push myself to go to Bilbao), Spain did get a new government this week. On Tuesday, accompanied by the usual fanfare and gobbledygook, Prime Minister Zapatero announced a major reshuffle of his cabinet. The main change appears to be that the new cabinet is composed of more hardline socialists, and that - for the first time in the country's history - a woman will head up the Ministry of Economics. Specifically, this woman, Elena Salgado:

(picture found here )

As an article in today's "El País" points out, she will have her work cut out for her. Unemployment here in Spain is creeping up inexorably towards the 4 million mark, assorted banks have failed and had to be bailed out within the past six months -- it's the same, sad, familiar story as everywhere else.

When we were in Andalucia last week, the signs of "la crisis" were obvious. Other than one other couple, we appeared to be the only guests in the hotel. Cafés and bars were relatively deserted. It was a marked contrast to two years ago, when I was in Seville at pretty much the same time of the year and the place was bustling with tourists. Here in Madrid, signs of the crisis are not as immediately evident, but are fairly obvious once you keep your eyes peeled. One example that comes to mind is that both churches that I pass on the way to my 7pm class have long lines of folks waiting for the soup kitchens to open at 7 o'clock. Something that, if it was happening two years ago, I have no recollection of seeing.

Nonetheless, there are still crowds of shoppers at El Corte Inglés, and pretty much everyone managed to get out of town this weekend, so whatever the true dimensions of "la crisis", it doesn't yet appear to have hit the madrileño middle classes very hard.

Future Plans (and Champagne)

It occurs to me that I have blogged very little about my day-to-day life here in Madrid during this trip, so I thought I'd try to remedy that as I head into my final week. I think part of the reason is because I've been so happy here - somehow calamity and adversity seem to make for better blogfodder than day-to-day contentedness. It has been a wonderful trip, providing further confirmation for the observation that it does me a power of good to get up off my rear end and get out of San Francisco. Those winter reading marathons are enjoyable in their own way, and raise my profile over on the goodreads site, but nothing beats actually getting out of the apartment and out of the city. As always, even the mundane stuff is more fun when you do it in a foreign city and in a foreign language.

The only problem is that I'm not sure how long I can continue to use learning Spanish as a pretext for my travels. Although classes at Don Quijote have been enjoyable, and my Spanish has continued to improve, the inescapable truth is that the gains at this point are somewhat marginal, at best. This time around I placed directly into the highest level, where I had the distinct feeling most of the time of being well ahead of my classmates, at least as far as speaking ability is concerned. I slacked off a bit on the grammar this time, largely out of boredom, but also due to a certain degree of laziness. As always, the teachers at dQ have been wonderful; I wouldn't say the same for my classmates, a few of whom I actively dislike. Though it's tempting to elaborate, I will leave it at that, because I don't want to offend anyone unnecessarily who might end up reading this blog. I'm just glad that I didn't sign up to stay through the advanced DELE exam in mid-May, because faced with the option of preparing for it with the particular group assembled in Madrid, I would have had to flee to Salamanca.

Anyway, I think I can justify one more trip to Latin America (with maybe a side trip of a week or two to Costa Rica), probably in the July-September time frame. I very much want to go back to Buenos Aires, as well as seeing more of Argentina, and would like to spend some time in Chile as well. The Don Quijote school in Cuzco, in contrast, at an elevation of 11,000 feet, holds no particular attraction. After that, I will be faced with a major decision - either try to put my knowledge of Spanish to practical use by, e.g. seeking a visiting academic position in a Spanish-speaking location (something I intend to look into seriously as soon as I get back to SF), or start afresh with a new language, most probably French. Interestingly, one thing that doesn't tempt me in the slightest is going back to practice statistics within the biopharmaceutical sector - I spent a very enjoyable 25 years doing that, but have no particular desire to do it again. And, though it's taken me two years to reach this point, I also no longer feel guilty about not wanting to go back. But I do need something to get me out of San Francisco, even if it's for only half the year, as I have a definite tendency to fall into a rut if I stay there too long.

Anyway, the plan for the immediate future* is to go back and take care of my taxes, go down to visit my friends Peggy and Andy in Southern California round the beginning of May. Then fly to Scotland and Ireland to visit friends and relatives there, and to meet up with my sister Emer and her husband Dale, later on in May. In June I hope to spend some time on the east coast (DC, Baltimore, New York, Chapel Hill) to catch up with friends there, before taking a longer trip to Latin America, starting in July. The big question is what happens after that, but right now I'm happy enough to map things out six months at a time.

I know, I know. Everybody should have such problems. Trust me, I count my blessings every day.

*: Major props are due to Paddy, Katie, and Adam for helping me shape this plan, and for making it clear in no uncertain terms that if I showed further signs of falling into a vegetative rut in San Francisco that they would personally mount an intervention to save me from myself. I love them all dearly, more than they can possibly know.

The plain people of Ireland: Yes, yes. That's all very interesting, but aren't you forgetting something? Isn't there some occasion you want to mark?
MOTP: ?! Oh, yes. Sure. Happy Easter to all my readers.
The plain people of Ireland: Not that. Something else, maybe?
MOTP: Ah, yes. Of course. It's champagne ye're after isn't it? Well, have a pew and join me in a glass to celebrate this, the quinquecentennial post on this blog.
The plain people of Ireland: Yerra, we thought you'd never ask. Still, five-hundred, that's not too shabby at all.
Fade to the sound of ribald celebration.