Thursday 28 May 2009

Madrid: Ripo comes to the Retiro

By Richard Morley
I took a wrong turn the other day and ended up by being entranced.

It was a pleasant, warm, sunny day and I wandered down to the Parque Del Buen Retiro. No one I know ever gives the place its full name. It’s the “Retiro Park” or simply, “The Retiro”. It’s a wonderful place: One hundred and eighteen hectares (more than two hundred acres for readers in countries yet to enter the 21st Century) and full of green vistas of lawns, spinneys, gardens, lakes and ponds and long, quiet lanes free of traffic. (Unless one counts skateboarders, roller-bladers, and cyclists.)

But all of that is for a later post. The Retiro has been there for over two hundred years and it’s not going anywhere. But what I want to show you in this post is going away in just a couple of weeks – but may be coming to a place near you.
I live on the opposite side of the Retiro from central Madrid and so I do not take the same entrance that most visitors would. But a glimpse of blue through the verdant views of lawn and tree caught my eye and drew me towards it. And I discovered some of the weirdest, playful, funny and enchanting statuary I have ever seen. Like three-dimensional characters from a child’s animated cartoon, these statues are downright quirky, emotive and I challenge to look at them and not smile.

The sculpture is Juan García Ripollés, who one reviewer praises as one of Spain’s “best known artists”. Supposing, of course you had never heard of Dali, Picasso, Goya, Velázquez, et al. I had never heard of him, which might say more about me than his fame, and finding any facts to pass on to you was not as simple as I could have wished.

However, Juan García Ripollés (aka Ripo or Beato Ripo) was born in Castellon de la Plana, eighty kilometres north of Valencia, in 1932. At the tender age of twelve he was apprenticed as an industrial painter, but had more artistic ambitions for his work and studied at night classes in design and art at the school of art and management (which seems a weird combination) in Ribalta de Castellón. Subsequently his work, as an artist, has taken him to live all over Spain, France and The Netherlands. He claims to be inspired by nature, animals, solitude, light and colours. That is very evident from this exhibition in the Paseo de Méjico, the road that leads up from the Puerta de Alcala entrance, in the Retiro Park. I could make some learned artistic comment, but I am not qualified. I just found the sculptures fun. You will too, I am sure, but you only have another two weeks.
But this exhibition has been displayed in several towns already, both here and internationally, and is still on the move. There are eighteen sculptures altogether and my pictures are just a taster. So if you can’t come to Madrid, poor things, then watch out for it where you live.
If you smiled, laughed or were perplexed by these pictures from an exhibition, please feel free to leave your own mark for posterity in the comment boxes below.

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Sickening for something

By Richard Morley.
I wrote recently about some embarrassing errors that the learner of Spanish can make. I forgot to mention not a mistake, but words that sound similar to English, but have a very different meaning. This is the slippery slope of “false friends”. Words that you might think have a similar meaning but DON’T.

What prompts my memory is that, due to someone being very generous with their germs; I have been “constipated” since Saturday morning. Spanish has the word “constipada” and it means much the same as in English, BUT IT DOES NOT REFER TO THE SAME PART OF THE BODY. In this case, it has been my nose that has been blocked up, as I have had a cold.

Actually, this is a bit of a misnomer, as, and trying to be as polite about this as possible, it has been far from blocked up but continuously running and I have managed to get through a box and half of tissues. However, I had to ask the pharmacist for something to ease my constipation.

I remember the first time I had a cold shortly after arriving here and actually having to screw up my courage and enter a pharmacy and announce “Estoy constipada”, while pointing dramatically at my nose to make sure she got the message. Of course, she just reached for some pills off her shelves. Later I reflected on the result of some English-speaking tourist who was suffering from our definition of the word who received cold relieving tablets and wondering why they were not helping. (In this case, the word to use is “estreñido”. Sometimes this blog can be so educational!!)

Everyone who has to use a foreign language for the first time out of the comfort of the classroom will have a little apprehension as to whether he or she will be understood or not. For me still, it is like a little miracle every time I put a string of these strange sounding words together and the Spaniard on the receiving end ACTUALLY UNDERSTANDS.

The Spanish people are very forgiving of people who mess up their language. Last week I went to top up my prepaid telephone card. What I wanted to do was “Recargar”, or recharge my credit. I stumbled over the syllables and a woman in the adjacent queue broke off from her transaction to help me. Of course, the word begins with a trilled, or rolled, R, which I still can’t do. Then the two shop assistants joined in the lesson. It was all very good-natured and there was lots of sympathy for the guiri. And I got my credit topped up.

And this didn’t surprise me as it has happened before. I am susceptible to back pain and there was a time I needed to buy some Ibuprofen. Ok, that’s we call it in England and is basically the generic name, but I had no idea of the Spanish word. Actually it’s just the same word with an O stuck on the end. In the pharmacy though, I just said Ibuprofen and hoped the pharmacist would understand. Of course she did and in seconds the little packet was on the counter. I reached to take it, but she kept her hand firmly on the box. Taking great care with her pronunciation she enunciated, “Ib-bu-pro-fen-o”, and indicated I should repeat the word. I did, but she did not release her grip on the packet. “Otra vez”, again, she said and I repeated the word. She insisted on a third time before finally relinquishing the tablets to me. I have never forgotten, which is just as well as my scoliotic spine does have the occasional relapse.

The shopkeepers of my barrio are remarkably tolerant of my Spanish screw-ups. From the “tenderos” who sell me fresh veg at my local Mercado I have learnt the names of many items. I think they got fed up with me just pointing at piles of carrots etc and saying “Un kilo” or “Medio kilo”. Pepe, the owner of Verduras Pepe of Puesto 19, became quite agitated when I forgot the name for Brussels sprouts a third time, but he beamed when I was word perfect on my next visit. (Coles de Bruselas!)

Back in the pharmacy, I have no problem with buying “ibuprofeno” as mentioned above, and as it’s the generic name I get the cheap packet. But I pay the earth for aspirin. Why? Well, according to the dictionaries, aspirin is “aspirina”, but then you get the propriety brand, which is expensive, whereas, if I had asked for “acido acetylsalicylico” I would get the cheap stuff. But when the head is pounding I can’t seem to produce those eleven syllables in any way that makes me understood. “Aspirina” is much simpler.

Luckily, usually I am in rude health and have no need for the pharmacist. In my early days in Spanish I just leant the phrase for “I need something for…”, which translates as “Necesito algo para …” and would find the offending ailment in the dictionary. But I remember the day I needed cough medicine and having practised my phrase entered the pharmacy and said, “Necesito algo para – a cough”. The assistant looked somewhat nonplussed until I realised and repeated the phrase but ended with “un tos”. You see, Spanglish doesn’t work.

But you have to keep trying and as red in the face you might be, never admit to being embarrassed with your Spanish, or your ailment, by claiming “Estoy embarazada”. Then you have just announced that you are pregnant, which requires more than something off the pharmacist’s shelves!

Which reminds me: An American received some very strange looks when she announced she would not eat food containing preservatives. In Spanish, preservativos are devices that would stop you from becoming embarazada, not chemicals in food.

It can be funny, this language business.
Note: The collection of pharmacuticals in the illustration do not all belong to me!

Got a funny language story? Tell me about it below. Blogger also sometimes has a communication problem and you might have to enter your comment twice.


Thursday 21 May 2009

Tea for Tú

By Richard Morley.
It was one of those semi-xenophobic clichés supposedly spoken by British holidaymakers after they had returned from their annual fortnight on the Costas: “You just can’t get a good cup of tea in Spain”.

As a rule, I tend to opine that visitors should accept the place they visit at face value and not judge it by where they come from. If the life style, the food and the customs were not different from “back home”, then there would be little point in travelling. After all, it’s only for a few weeks! What’s more, if all they find to complain about is the quality of the tea, then they’ve not had it too bad.

Recently there has been a list of traveller’s complaints circulating on the internet. Personally, I am a little suspicious of some of them. There were complaints that English biscuits could not be bought in the Seychelles, that one women’s holiday was ruined by her husband ogling topless girls on the beach, and that one lady claimed she should have been warned that the food in Goa would be spicy and consequently she was unable to eat a thing.

Years ago, the Spanish tourist board promoted the country with the tag line, “Spain is different”. Some people seem to have a problem with that.

One complaint about Spain from the above list dwelt on the fact that “there were too many Spanish, the receptionist in the hotel spoke Spanish, and that all the food was Spanish”. Another grumbled that none of the shops were open in the afternoon because of siesta and suggested that the very act of taking a well-earned lie-down in the heat of the afternoon be banned.

But after their vacations, these Moaning Minnies go home. What about those of us who live here? Most of us expats choose to live here and love the place. Some of us, the ones who do not live in the British ghettos on the coast, learn the ways, the culture, the language and what is good to eat and drink, and get on very well.

But I cannot deny my heritage and, but whisper this very quietly, sometimes I prefer a taste of home. I wrote some time ago about parsnips and how our tastes differ. Believe me, it goes further. The Spanish will not thank you for offering them English Mustard, HP Sauce or Marmite. And because I live in a Spanish home, I become well aware that “Spain is different” – from us.

And so, back to the tea.

Every aficionado of tea knows that to get the best out of the leaf, one has to use BOILING water. Not hot – boiling. Being English, top of my list of necessary items when I moved into my own place in Madrid was a kettle, and so I began an expedition. I didn’t know it actually would be an expedition. I thought I would pop across to a long commercial street not far from where I live and buy this simple domestic device.

The street is four kilometres long and probably every fifth shop is a dealer in domestic appliances, so there shouldn’t have been a problem. Three hours later I knew differently! There were no kettles! I was now, however, an expert on a thousand different ways of making coffee: from the simple grey aluminium one-cup percolator to devices only NASA could have designed. They were shiny, curly, from penny plain stainless steel to maharajah’s magnificence. They filtered, they percolated, they had pipes, funnels, knobs and switches, taps and valves. They all guaranteed perfect coffee, which should be made from water heated to around ninety degrees Celsius (185 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit for readers using old technology). This means, NONE OF THEM ACTUALLY BOILED THE WATER.

This is why when you order tea in a Spanish café it will be made from water from the big silver coffee machine and consequently be several degrees cooler than you expected. Or you could be faced with the prospect of dunking your teabag into a cup of slimy, rapidly skinning milk that the same machine has just steam heated.

Neither of which is acceptable to the true aficionado of real tea.

Then there is the matter of what tea? A cursory glance on the shelves of any Spanish supermarket or in the proffered tray of teabags in a café or restaurant will demonstrate a huge range of teas from which to choose: Mint, Cinnamon, apple, orange etc. Anything in fact except tea flavoured. The Spanish don’t call them teas, but “Infusions”. Infusions – refuse ‘ems. At least I do. (Well, actually I do quite like the apple, but only occasionally!)

At the risk of being sued for libel, I have to state that the brand of tea most offered for sale in Spain, Hornimans, is not worthy of the name “tea”. It too comes in several different flavours. Out of desperation, I bought a box of their “Black” tea, expecting it to be something close to my normal tastes. After using three bags in the cup I managed to get it to taste of something, but as this is a decent, well-mannered blog, I will not describe of what!

Discussing this just yesterday with a Spanish friend, even she stated that tea made with boiled water tasted better. However, at home she would boil water in a pan or the microwave! (A very dangerous method!) I like my friend. I’d hate to see her with scars from exploding scolding water on her pretty face.

When I suggested she buy a kettle, she remarked that her kitchen was already full of almost every known device known to the culinary arts and a kettle would just get in the way. A humorous internet circulated list of reasons how you know you have been in Spain too long included “When you are no longer surprised that every kitchen has a deep fat fryer, but does not have a kettle”.

To cut a long story short I left the long kettle-less street, went to the large French hypermarket on the other side of town, and bought a cheap(ish) plastic jug electric kettle. This strange piece of equipment (to Spanish eyes) became a source of wonder for the children with whom I share an apartment. A window on the side showed how much water it contained. It glowed an eerie yellow light when I switched it on and automatically switched itself off when the water had boiled. The first time I used it the youngest watched with open-eyed fascination and asked me what I was doing. He seemed quite disappointed when I replied I was making a cup of tea! When the eldest saw the thing in action he remarked, “Que guay”. Pronounced like the letters K Y and means “That’s cool”. (And you are only allowed to use that phrase if you are under twenty!)

However, it is possible to buy favourite English teas in Madrid. El Corte Inglés, everyone favourite department store sells Liptons, Tetleys, Twinings and Yorkshire Tea brands. There is also a delightful shop not far from Bilbao metro rejoicing in the wonderful name of “Things You Miss”, which sells all sorts of English goodies (including “All Sorts”- Brits will know what I mean,) and sells several different brands of tea.

So, it is possible to get a good cup of tea in Spain. Well, in my home at least! In cafés, it’s better to stick with coffee. With that, the Spanish know exactly what they’re doing!

Oh, and yes, I do add a dash of cold milk – but that’s a whole other discussion here in Spain.

What’s your favourite tea? Do you know a café in Madrid that serves piping hot English style tea? Or do you like your tea tepid, weak, and tasting of … never mind? Feel free to dunk your comment bags in the comment cups below. Blogger sometimes likes it strong, you might have to dunk twice.

Monday 18 May 2009

Dancing in the Park

By Richard Morley.

Well, we had a wonderful weekend. The sun shone every day for the Feria of San Isidro and we all had a wonderful time.

On Sunday I went to the Retiro Park to listen to the music, which was excellent and all new to me as the Zarzuela Operettas are something I have only just discovered. And I seriously doubt they could have squeezed any more musicians on to that bandstand, which curiously, is called a "Quiosco de Musica" (a kiosk) in Spanish.

The concert came to an end, but there were two encores and the appreciative and, up to then, more or less observant audience became animated. Although I wasn't planning to, I switched my little camera to "movie" mode and filmed the results. I make no comment except to apologize for the quality.

The first encore was Augustin Lara's song "Madrid", which naturally is a sort of local anthem. You will see and hear the result. Sorry, I missed the first few bars.

The second encore, as you will see, had them dancing in the aisles.

And so, until next year. What a great weekend!

Friday 15 May 2009

It's Quince de Mayo - It's San Isidro

Two years ago, returning to Madrid from one of my travels, I watched spellbound from the window of my taxi at an extraordinary sight being enacted on the streets of the capital. It seemed as if Madrid had gone back in time and or they were filming sequels to either My Fair Lady or Mary Poppins.
The men were all dressed like London costermongers, men who worked in the London markets of a century ago (American readers think Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins) while the women of the town wore beautiful long dresses that hugged the figure until flaring out from the knee.

What the heck was going on?

The date was the 15th of May and this was the feast day of San Isidro, the patron saint of Madrid, and what I was witnessing was the “Romero”. The people of the town dress up in their traditional costumes and ostensibly make a pilgrimage to the saint’s shrine in the barrio that bears the saint’s name. Some do, some don’t. Some dress up because it is traditional and go to one or other of the many events that happen all over the city on this day.

There are two kinds of costume: the “Majos” and the “Majas” and the “Chulos” and the “Chulapas”. (The first in each case is for men, the second for women.) The Majos and Majas are more like the peasant’s garb seen in the painting of Goya. The Chulos and Chulapas come from a later time and, at least in the case of the women’s dress, much more flattering to the figure and consequently more popular.

And it’s here again and everyone in Madrid has a holiday. It’s too bad for the rest of Spain. Even towns just beyond the boundaries of the city don’t get to join in this fiesta. For them it’s a normal work day.
San Isidro, (c 1070 – 15th May 1130), more properly known as San Isidro Labrador, (the labourer), was a farm worker who, among other things, is credited with the miracle of finding a spring of sweet water on his master’s land which falls, nowadays, just within the city limits.

A pious man, his fellow farm-workers complained that he spent too much time praying in the church on his way to his daily labours and that they were having to do his work for him. Yet on the morning when his boss went to check, he found that even though Isidro had not arrived in the fields, an angel was doing his work for him. On another occasion, when the good man was actually hard at work ploughing, his employer saw two angels also ploughing on either side, causing the farmer to declare that Isidro’s work was worth that of three men. Yet for the wage of one. I bet there were some rumblings over post-laboral cervezas among his fellow workers that night.

Despite his co-worker’s grumbles, he probably impressed his boss more when he interceded with God to bring his master’s daughter back from the dead. However, his reputation was more surely made when King Felipe III claimed he had been cured of some deadly disease by touching the saint’s relics.

The spring the saint found is reputed to have both health giving and spiritual properties and today there will be long queues outside the “Ermita” that Queen Isabella had built in his honour, as the populace waits their turn to drink it. I doubt it is so very different from that which comes out of Madrid’s taps, but even so, it is good water. And the ladies who queue are much more beautiful than those in Goya’s famous painting.
Goya's "Pilgrimaage to San Isidro's Well" - Prado
If you can’t be here to join the queue, then you can get a virtual flavour of san isidro’s heritage here and click on the photograph.

San Isidro had a wife, known as Santa Maria de la Cabeza, because a bust of her head is carried to her shrine near the Puente de Toledo, a wonderfully sculptured bridge across the mighty Rio Manzanares near Pirámides, on the 9th of September. (Her statue can be seen among many others along the bridge.) They had a daughter who unfortunately fell into a deep well. With an intercession from the Virgin Mary, the water level in the well rose to the top carrying their floating daughter to safety. (The 9th of September is also a holiday in Madrid – although last year it was moved!)

Just around the corner from the “Ermita” there will be a religious service presided over by the bishop of Madrid, but for the rest of the day, in fact, for several days, it is a time of fiestas.

The streets within the Parque de San Isidro, in particular the Paseo del Quince de Mayo, naturally, and the Paseo de la Ermita, become a market, a fair, a Parque de atracciones, an open air church, and a ballroom. You can buy cakes called Rosquillas de San Isidro, which look a bit like ring doughnuts (but are not) and come, among others, in Clever (Listas), Stupid (Tontas), and Santa Clara flavours! There are huge loaves called Bizcochos, hams, chorizo sausages, churros (with and without lashings of thick chocolate), and many other forms of heart stopping cholesterol.

Vendors sell earthenware “Botijas”, porous pot that keep wine cool and allow you to drink from a never-ending stream held high above your head; a solid form of the canvass or goatskin “Botas”. There are ceramic whistles that can be filled with water and are meant to sound like bird singing. And if you wish, you can buy a new wardrobe of chulupos or chulupas.
Music is played and danced to. Traditionally some of the music will come from barrel organs, but more often, it seems, from a portable CD player. They dance the chotis, a strange dance where the women make all the movement and their male partners simply revolve on the spot. And they dance the two-step, or paso-double. But most of the time they stroll up and down, stopping to talk to friends and partake of yet more hear-stopping fatty meat and sugary cakes, which incidentally, are all delicious.
Late into the evening, there will be dancing of a more modern kind to live bands and the food and the drinks will just keep on coming. I swear I have gained a kilo just writing about it all.

The festivities don’t just happen in the barrio of San Isidro, but all over the city. There will be music, lots of it played on barrel organs, and dancing in the Retiro Park and puppet shows for the kids and Zarzuelas in the Plaza Mayor. It’s great fun, everyone dresses up. It’s just a little disappointing that no one breaks into a chorus of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious*.

Officially, from May 7 to the end of the month, the Feria deSan Isidro is celebrated with a continuous string of bullfights at the Ventas Bullring, but actually they began in April and will go on until the 7th of June. On the 15th itself three of Spain’s greatest bullfighters will be there; Antonio Ferrera, Matías Tejela, and Luis Bolivar. It is curious, though, glancing through the list of names, to see that also fighting this month will be El Cid, John the Baptist, and also Juan Carlos Rey (The King!?). Does he moonlight from his royal duties, one wonders?

Oh, If you don’t have a ticket it’s too late. They have been queuing up for weeks.

The photographs here are the ones I took last year. While you read this I will be at this year’s event. If you want to come, the nearest metro is the Marques de Vadillo on line 5 or you take buses 34, 35, 50, 118 and 119.

*I am impressed that MS Word actually has Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in its spellchecker.
If you have enjoyed reading this post, I might ask why the heck you are sitting at your computer and not here enjoying all the fun? But if you have any comment, please feel free to leave one below. Blogger doesn’t always believe what you want to say the first time and you might have to enter your comment twice. Gracias.

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Dancing in the Street

The streets of Madrid are filled with music. Usually the performers are buskers of varying degrees of talent and limited repertoire. There’s something a little different going on now.

The Plaza Mayor has been converted into a theatre: Stage, lights, sound systems are installed and the players have been rehearsing for weeks. Or perhaps for all their lives, because this isn’t just any performance. This is opera. This isn’t just any old opera. Madrid is perfectly well equipped to give us Wagner, Mozart, Puccini et al at the Opera house. Foreigners all. This week we have the homegrown stuff - The Zarzuela.

Nearly every visitor to Madrid will visit the area around the Plaza de Chueca. Why not, there are some excellent restaurants and bars there. But as you walk around Chueca and along the nearby streets of Valverde, Barbieri, or Belen (or even Arrieta – but that’s near the opera house,) remember you are in the thick of Madrid’s musical heritage.

The Zarzuela is Spain’s answer to Britain’s Savoy Operas, the French Opéra Comique and German Operettas. Or it could be said that they are the answer to the Zarzuela, as the early form of Spanish light opera predates all of them.

First introduced in Spain in the 16th century the stories are rooted in musical theatre. The performance alternates between sung and spoken scenes with dances, chorus numbers and evocative solos. Often the works were short and cheap to appeal to masses.

If I were to get above my artistic station, because I will be the first to admit that I don’t know much, but I know what I like, I could tell you that the Zarzuela has two forms: Baroque, which were performed by wandering actors in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the later Zarzuela Romantico, which began in the mid 1800s and were still being composed until the 1950s. It’s the latter which Madrileños still go to see this week.

The opera house or even the Plaza Mayor are somewhat different venues from where these operas began their life. In 1657 King Felipe IV and his queen Mariana attended the first performance of El Laurel de Apolo, by Pedro Calderón de la Barca and Juan de Hidalgo, at a hunting lodge in the grounds of what is now the Palacio de Pardo. The venue was outside in an area thick with bramble bushes, or “zarzars”. Hence the name.

The style was revived by Francisco Barbieri and Joaquin Gaztambide in the 1850s as a Spanish ripost to the somewhat risqué French and Italian operettas that were all the rage at the time, but were also reviled by the church for their ludeness and by the inteligencia for their low form of humour.

On the night of the 16th of October 1851 the Teatro de Circo saw the opening of Barbieri’s “Jugar con Fuego”. It was a great success. He soon followed this with “Los Diamentes de la Corona” (1854), “El Diablo en el Poder” (1856), “Entre mi Mujer y el Negro” (1859), and the national favourite, “Pan y Toros” (1864). His comic masterpiece though, has surely to be “El Barberillo de Lavapies” (1874).

Barbieri had a pupil; a young man whose parents wanted him to be a doctor but whose musical talent led him to greater things. This was Frederico Chueca who, as well as being a skilled photographer, was chief conductor of the Teatro de Variedades, and wrote several zarzuelas including “El Chaleco Blanco” (1890), “Las Zapatillas” (1895) and “El Bateo” (1901). Although most people regard “The Gran Via”, written in 1886 with a mix of satire, and popular song and dance, as his greatest work. At that time the Gran Via was still only a developers dream and the name “Gran Via” was used sardonically by those opposed to its construction, which eventually began in 1904.

With its satire, asides to the audience, the ridiculing of high persons and unpopular beliefs, the Zarzuela, like the Gilberts and Sullivan operettas in Britain, could be subversive and irreverent, and so were a great hit with the ordinary people. Chueca’s reputation as a composer of patriotic music, (in1865 Chueca wrote his famous “Hymn to General Prim”, which was adopted by the military as the “March from Cadiz”), and his very hummable tunes, made him a great favourite; The Spanish Paul McCartney of his day.

The Plaza named in his honour connects with the Calle de Barbieri, named after the man that Chueca called “My father in Music”.

But he was only one of more than thirty composers who wrote regularly for the Zarzuela stage. Valverde, with whom Chueca worked closely, Ruperto Chapi, Thomas Breton, Emillio Arrieta and many others. They have left a body of work that is very Spanish, and peculiarly Madrileño.

On Friday and Saturday the crowds will flock to the Plaza Mayor where the Zarzuela "Cien Puñaos de Rosas", by Ruperto Chapi will be performed at 10 pm. On Thursday evening, you can pop along and watch them rehearse.

Ruperto Chapi died one hundred years ago. This year he is not only being honoured with a performance of "Cien Puñaos de Rosas", but the Madrid Symphony Orchestra will give a free concert of his music in the Retiro at midday on the 17th.
The You Tube clip that comes with this post is a scene from “La Verbana de Paloma”, by Thomas Breton, and possibly the most loved of all the Zarzuelas. Its story can be found here.

How many of you, like me, see a similarity between the YouTube video and the classic movies “My Fair Lady” and “Mary Poppins”? I loved those and I am beginning to love the Zarzuela (even though a friend despairs at my pronunciation of the word!). They are a rich part of real Madrid history and culture and a very enjoyable way to learn about it.

If you have been educated, informed, entertained, or even inspired by this post, please feel free to leave a comment below. B-b-blogger sometimes stammers and you might have to enter your comment twice.

Sunday 10 May 2009

Madrid - Second thoughts on first impressions

By Richard Morley.
Gran Via, Madrid

I knew it was around this time, but I wasn’t quite sure. So, I dug around in some old e mail files and discovered that May 11th is the forth anniversary of my first visit to Madrid. I was only coming for a week and Spain played no part in any plans I had for my life. They say people always remember their first time, but I had forgotten the effect the city had had on me until I started searching for dates among those old files.

For that first visit, I was in Spain for just ten days and eight of them were spent in a tiny village a long way from Madrid, but these jottings are my first memories of the place that has now become my home.

Of course, Madrid is no longer a novelty. I know it well. I am well aware that what now seems perfectly natural to me, once was something new and fresh. I had much exploring to do, a whole new culture to discover. Those were my Spanish salad days, or “Mis días Ensaladas”, as I could call them now, and I no longer see Madrid through those eyes. So, it has been interesting to read these early thoughts and recall my first impressions.

Some of them were actually e mails I sent, so there has been some careful editing, but I think they convey what I thought at the time.

11th May, 2005
I arrived at Madrid airport, terminal 1. For weeks, I had been studying street maps and plans of the Metro underground system and knew, in theory, how to get to my hotel, but I had a problem; where the heck is the metro? I had expected to exit the arrivals hall and see large signs that pointed me in the right direction, but there were none. Ten minutes of wanderings still hadn’t brought me any closer and I was on the point of taking a taxi. Until under a stair I saw two cleaners putting their tools into a closet and with more courage than I thought I had, uttered my first words in Spanish for twenty-five years (remembered from a couple of visits to the Canary Islands) and asked, “Donde estar el Metro”. To my great relief, with lots of waving, pointing arms and a rapid flow of words I didn’t understand, they pointed at a ramp and a sign that bore the logo and single word, “Metro”. I was pleased the sign wasn’t at all obvious – I didn’t feel as foolish as I would have done if it had been in plain sight, but what really impressed me was that I spoken some Spanish and been understood. Ok, I could probably have just said the single word “Metro” and got the same response, but like the missionaries of old, I had made my first contact with the natives.

It’s a long walk to the metro; I kept following the signs, but thought I would never get there. I did, of course. Everything about using the Metro is self explanatory and obvious. I shoved a euro into the slot and received my ticket. Went to the platform and waited for the train. Now that was impressive. How modern, how clean, …. how crowded. It was seven in the evening and I assumed this was rush hour. There were no seats. I stood and guarded my luggage and viewed my fellow passengers with the suspicion of a stranger in a strange land. They looked normal enough, but I had heard tales of pickpockets and muggings. Then a woman reached into her handbag, pulled out a fan and started to cool herself in the warm, sticky air of the carriage. I just stared. Now I knew I was in Spain, but I thought this was something from days gone by, not a sight for the twenty-first century.

It took three changes of Metro line, following swarms of people who, unlike me, knew exactly where they were going, to reach the station near to my hotel. But the station had three exits. Which one should I take? By chance, I made the right choice and on reaching the surface saw my lodgings opposite on the other side of a wide thoroughfare. This was Gran Via. Such hustle and bustle.

My hotel, actually a “Hostal” on the third floor of perhaps not the most salubrious building on the Gran Via, turned out to be clean and tidy. But it was still early evening and I only had a short time to get to see the city as I wasn’t staying. I left the building, turned left and walked. I had no idea where I was going, but it didn’t matter. In any direction I would see things I hadn’t seen before. Well, not exactly. After about two hundred metres I found the notorious Calle de Montera, with its ladies of negotiable affection. I had seen that sort of sight in many a town. I kept on walking! Honestly!!!!!

I turned left, right, went straight on. Just looking. It was easier to go downhill, so I did, and then saw a huge arch ahead. It pulled me towards it. It was the Puerta de Alcala and next to it lay the Retiro Park. I was just rambling so I entered and joined the evening strollers. I found the lake and at the end was a terrace bar. Just what I needed. Another Spanish phrase dragged up from a long buried memory resurfaced. “Una cerveza, por favor”.

Boating in Retiro

It was half past eight on a warm and sunny May evening. I was in Madrid and drinking a beer. Around me others were doing the same. There seemed to be a very relaxed atmosphere. Out on the lake rowers were heaving their course. I saw a tiny women rowing while her fat husband sat in the stern. The imbalance of their weight tilted the boat alarmingly. The water line was just centimetres behind his backside, while the prow wasn’t even touching the water. Behind me girls in very short shorts and low necked tops rocketed around on roller-blades. An old man promenaded while reading his newspaper. He couldn’t see where he was going and the skaters obligingly detoured around him. A man, also on skates, was exercising his dog. He just balanced on his skates while the dog pulled him along.

I stayed until my beer was gone. I had eaten nothing since leaving London and I could feel the effects of the alcohol and didn’t want another. But I watched while this evening scene unfolded around me. I felt incredibly relaxed, and not from the beer. It was the people. I could live here, I thought.

The next day was busy with the language school I had come to work for and though I walked the streets all I remember was the huge amount of the English language that is used in advertising around the city. I wondered what would be the reaction if Spanish was so equally used around London.

Then I went away for a week and arrived back in Madrid, due to mechanical breakdown, around nine-thirty in the evening. This, I thought, would be my last evening ever in the city. I recalled my impression to a friend by e mail.

20th May 2005.

I arrived at my hotel just before ten. What a dump! The Internet is great for on-line, convenient bookings, but there’s no guarantee as to what you’ll get. What I got what a seedy hotel on the second floor of an ancient edifice hidden in a back street somewhere south of Sol. It was in the early throws of badly needed refurbishment. The corridor was a dimly lit alpine labyrinth of piles of cement bags and rubble. The manager was an overstuffed Cuban who had been imbibing all too freely. But he was friendly and bumblingly efficient and showed me my room that was surprisingly clean and comfortable. It was not air-conditioned, but had a huge ceiling fan that I swear used the rotors from a Blackhawk helicopter, so it was reasonably cool. Again, I did not linger, but shot out to the Plaza Mayor for a meal.

When I die I hope heaven is like the Plaza Mayor that night. I sat and ate a Spanish omelette surrounded by loving couples, families and other tourists who all seemed happy to be there. From all sides came the drift of pleasant music: classical Spanish guitar from one arcaded corner, (cleverly chosen to enhance the acoustics), flamenco from another. A folk group stood at the feet of King Filipe and encouraged its audience to sing along. The songs sounded bawdy and suggestive and the crowd happy to oblige. One wandering minstrel, an American with an electric guitar sang Lennon and McCartney to pavement diners, yet somehow did not seem out of place. His girlfriend collected from the captive audience and hawked his ‘latest’ CD. Near the entrance another couple danced an x-rated exhibition tango egged on by the suggestive cries of their audience.

My meal finished I ambled between the groups of squatting schoolchildren who had staked claim to a few square metres of the plaza with their backpacks strewn to trip the unwary. Two hysterical girls were being harangued by their teacher. They had become separated from their class and been brought back by the police, who thought the rescue necessitated the full force of their siren and flashing lights, which detracted somewhat from the ambience of the square.
Descending some steps at the southwestern corner I thought I had stumbled into Montmartre in Paris with artists displaying their work, musicians playing discordant jazz and curiously scented smoke drifting from darkened cafés.

Well after midnight, I returned to my hotel. The manager greeted me like a long lost friend. I read a little then drifted off to the best sleep I had had for a week.

The next morning I took breakfast at a street café in a little square near my hotel then took the metro to the airport. I love the metro and now I love Madrid.

As I said, I never expected to come back, but for me Madrid’s charm was too great to ignore. I came back for further visits and then to stay. I am older and wiser now – and not so naïve. That Spanish omelette I mentioned above: I had thought to order a simple omelette, what I got was a complete tortilla patatas, which cost me €13 and I didn’t finish. (And the waiter had not thought to explain to the “guiri” that the meal would probably be too much for one.) In subsequent visits to the plaza, which I hardly ever visit nowadays, I realised that the street entertainers were working to a schedule and regulated and that better, and cheaper, food could be obtained elsewhere. There’s a little bit of me that now views the Plaza Mayor with some distain, but of course, is a “must see” for any new visitor. Take a relaxing beer or coffee by all means, but let your stomach take to towards better eateries near the Opera or

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Thursday 7 May 2009

Taking the Bus

By Richard MorleyA Madrid bus passes the Palacio de Comunicaciones

I came round the corner to see my bus just pulling up at the stop about one hundred metres away. Only one person was waiting to board, so it was only going to stay there for about thirty seconds. Some people might run one hundred metres in around ten seconds. There was a time, but far too long ago for me to remember, when I would not have been far short of that, but I doubted I could have made the distance to the bus in the short time available. Did I panic? No. Why should I? This is Madrid. I wouldn’t have to wait long for another.

Besides, I had plenty of time. I had left my apartment early so I could buy my ticket at the tobacconists before it closed for lunch. I would easily make my three o’ clock.

Yes, you read that correctly, I needed a new ten-trip ticket, or “Metrobus” and I popped into the “estanco” to buy it. Tobacconists, you see, sell more than cigarettes and cigars. In Madrid, they are where you buy stamps for letters and postcards, the postcards themselves, writing paper and envelopes, birthday cards, wrapping paper for presents, and bus and metro tickets. Some, like mine, are also newsagents.

To avoid any confusion, I should also point out that you can buy every sort of ticket for using Madrid’s wonderful public transport from machines at every metro station, which, because they are multilingual, avoids having to use your rudimentary Spanish. But saying “Quisiera un Metrobus” at the estanco is not difficult.

Catching the bus at Colon

Ticket machines at the metro station.
However, the bus driver will only sell you a single, which will set you back a whole euro as opposed to the seventy-four cents the journey would have cost if you had bought your ten-trip Metrobus ticket.

But I digress.

I have only recently started using the buses of the EMT: La Empresa Municipal de Transportes de Madrid. I used to take the metro everywhere, and rejected the buses as being for the hoi-polloi, (Hey, I live in Madrid – I’m meant to be “Chulo”*). However, recently I have had to visit one particular area of Madrid regularly and this involved a change of Metro lines. So I was really happy when I discovered that there was a bus that took me from almost my front door to within fifty metres of my destination.

Within days I then found another that took me directly to a friend’s house allowing me to avoid two changes of Metro line and a long walk. Suddenly using the bus began to make sense. Ok, they are not as frequent or as fast as the metro, but it takes me ten minutes to change metro lines at Avenida de America, and that’s two thirds of my bus journey time. However, EMT is a misnomer. They are never empty at the times I travel, so spend most of the journey standing and clinging desperately to a handrail or strap.

Standing room only

But that might be preferable to actually taking a seat! Here I have to point something out. Madrid has two different colours of buses: Red or Blue. The red ones are older and are being replaced with the blue. The red ones have cloth-covered seats; the blue ones have shiny plastic. Believe me, cloth is better, because when the driver is racing to beat the lights along the Calle de Alcala and some potential passenger at a parada sticks their hand up and the driver (who typically thinks he is Fernando Alonso vainly trying to catch up with Lewis Hamilton) applies the brakes, if you are sitting on one of the new shiny plastic seats, be prepared to slide off on to the floor. I have found bracing yourself with one foot firmly wedged against the back of the seat in front helps tremendously.
Shiny - and slippery

And let’s not talk of the four seats that face four others that face backwards. So, if you slip off of those you can find yourself on someone’s lap. Just hope she’s pretty!

Using the bus is child’s play. If your journey can be completed on one route, the trip will cost you, assuming you are armed with your Metrobus, just 74 cents whether you go one stop or thirty. You just board the bus and insert your ticket into a machine near the driver. The machine swallows it, then spits it back with a tiny ink stamp and having deleted one trip from its magnetic strip memory. Find your seat, if available, and travel to your destination.

Assuming you know where you want to go.

Ok, that’s an obvious statement, but your destination might not be so obvious if previously you have used the metro for all your journeys. You see, the metro has twelve lines and around three hundred stations, but the bus services have a couple of thousand streets and the number of paradas de autobus exceed three thousand. On the surface, it’s a different city.

Let’s go to where a million bus rides begin and end – Cibeles. The plaza de Cibeles is famous. It has the eponymous statue, the old post office and stands at the north end of the Paseo del Prado. But you will search in vain for Cibeles on the metro. They call it Banco España.
Buses queuing at Cibeles.

Some buses will take you to the Plaza España, and their route list tells you so. Others don’t, but will take you to a stop in Calle Princessa, which is twenty metres from the Plaza España, but it doesn’t say so.

At every bus shelter you will find a map displaying the entire city with every bus route marked. However, Madrid is large and the map isn’t, so unless you carry a magnifying glass, this map in of very little use.

But not all is lost – and neither will you be. You just have to do your homework.

As the bus moves travels through the city a display board and an announcement tells you which stop is coming up next. There are two stops in the Calle General Peron and are announced as: General Peron y Calle de Orense and General Peron y Calle de la Infanta Mercedes, and these refer to street intersections, which means you have to know your streets, or at least the one you need.
In my barrio there are no bus stops at intersections, so you get the street number of the building adjacent to the stop, so you really do have to know your streets in detail.

How will the first time visitor get this information? It’s easy. Hit the internet and go to , go down on the left hand side to “nuestros servicios”, then click on “muévete por Madrid en autobus”. The three boxes that have now appeared to the right ask you three questions: The top one: where are you and where do you want to go?” and will give you detailed directions not only of the bus routes you need, but also how to walk to your nearest bus stop. In the middle box you can find out all the different routes that pass close to your hotel or apartment, and the bottom box not only gives you a route map, but a list of every stop on the route you have selected.

In fact, you can even download PDF files of the route itineraries they put up on the bus stops.

That site is in Spanish, but all is not lost Inglés hablantes, there is another at Consorcio Transportes Madrid, which is in English and covers all the transport systems in and around the capitol. I am being helpful today or what?

So, armed with your Michelin Map of Madrid and all this on line information, you can use the buses with total confidence. Just make sure you hold on tight.

What is more, I can still be “Chulo”. I just tell everyone I travel by Mercedes Benz!

Oh, I only had to wait six minutes for the next bus. Madrid is wonderful.

*Chulo – a name meaning “Stuck-up” or “Having a superiority complex” that people from outside Madrid disparagingly call all Madrileños.

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Sunday 3 May 2009

Accent the positive

By Richard Morley.
Learning Spanish can be a minefield.

It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it, as the song says.

Let’s take an example: everyone who reads this blog is reading in English. Those from the UK could say, in Spanish, “Yo soy inglés”, “I am English”, because “Inglés” means “English”, right? Notice the accent mark over the e, because sometimes I don’t!

So, I was intrigued to see that one of the local hairdressing salons advertises a particular style called an “Ingles”, and I wondered what sort of hairstyle constituted an “English” And like the supreme (and naïve) idiot that I am, asked the lovely lady who is attempting to turn me into a Spanish speaker, about this particular form of hairstyling.

I didn’t think she was ever going to stop laughing. Now I like to make people happy, but I do like to know why, and here I had obviously asked something incredibly silly. I could feel the embarrassment creep over my face. What had I said?

Eventually seriousness was restored and my blush of embarrassment faded. Only to immediately return when she stood up in the crowded café and, in that very direct manner that Spanish women have, using her hands with the thumbs extended and brought together to form a triangle, indicated exactly where the hairdresser would have been busy with the scissors – or more likely, with the wax. This style has less to do with being English and more to do with being Brazilian, if you understand what I mean. My female readers will know exactly.

The “Ingle”, pronounced “In-glay”, with the stress on the first syllable and no written accent, refers to the groin area. Ouch! On second thoughts, I am so glad I asked my friend and did not enter the salon and enquire. I probably would have had to move barrios due to the embarrassment! Although I do wonder why the word is pluralised. Piernas – Legs, ok, there are two; Axilas – armpits, fine, another plural pair. So why “Ingles”? Do women have more than one?

The reason is that I have accent blindness. That is my official excuse. The real one is that I am not reading the Spanish words carefully enough and because of this, I am not putting the stress in the right place and that can drastically, and mortifyingly, change the whole meaning of the word.

Look, I’m sorry. I started this article with probably the most innocuous of these vocal vergüencitas. (Little embarrassments.) This post can only go downhill from here. Readers of a nervous or sensitive disposition should immediately stop now.

For the rest of you who now follow me into this world of degradation and humiliation I direct your attention to any driver of a station wagon bearing the label, “Pajaro”. Mitsubishi should have put an accent over the first “a”, which puts the stress in the right place, “PA – haro”. With the accent the word just means “bird”, but without it the word would be spoken like another Spanish word, “Pajero”, which refers to a man who enjoys a great sex life - without the need of another person! In fact, an Australian website on car driving actually makes that particular spelling mistake. I hope that new owners don’t enjoy it too much!!

Many are the cautionary tales of confusing the word for chicken “Pollo” (remember that the double l in Spanish is pronounced like a y in yacht,) with “Polla”, which is a slang term of a part of male anatomy. Be careful what you order in your favourite Madrid restaurante.

And while on that subject, I recently heard a politician thanking another for his support, and the word for that is “Apoyar”. Go on, say it out loud, remembering what I just wrote in the previous paragraph. When I used it during a conversation in a very public café, I was quickly told that to avoid a terrible misunderstanding, I really should put lots of stress on the last syllable. Imagine how what that politician said could be misconstrued and splashed as a governmental sex scandal.

I am pleased that I am not the only one to make these humiliating blunders. A friend tells me when she asked a male friend if she could use his comb and instead of the word for comb coming out as “Pe-in-e”, her friend heard “Pe-ne”. She only realised her mistake when the guy, with a huge grin, began to unzip his jeans. She won’t make that error again!

Recently, in research for the Linear City post, I went out looking for the route of an old stream and told a friend I had been looking for an “Arroyo”. However, one of the many meanings of “rollo” (Remember the double l sound) is a romantic liaison or affair, and she had heard that I spent the afternoon looking for “a rollo”, or a little (temporary) love in my life. She took great delight in correcting my speech.

These misunderstandings can cross-linguistic boundaries. I remember listening to a sad tale from a very prim and proper Spanish woman who was speaking in English. I shook my head in sympathy and sighed as I remarked, “Oh dear”. I saw her visibly stiffen and pause in her speech. “What did you say”, she asked. “Oh dear”, I repeated, without the sigh. What she thought I had said was the Spanish word, “Joder”, which translates into English as the F word. No wonder she was shocked.

But back to my “accent blindness”. It didn’t take me long to realise that the use of accents in Spanish is very, very important. Luckily, I have a Spanish keyboard and have no problems with typing them. Those without that luxury, but who wish to write in Spanish, must be very careful.

Each year on January the First, I receive many mails wishing me a “Feliz ano nuevo”. Or on my birthday “Muchos anos mas”. The writers are, of course, thinking they are wishing me a happy new year and many more years. BUT, the Spanish for year is “Año”. Please notice what is called the tilde above the n – it IS important. You see, the word “ano” does exist in Spanish, and to put it nicely it refers to the part of the body applied to the chair when you sit down. So, while it might be nice to be wished a “happy” one, I don’t need piles of them. (And yes, the pun is intended!)

So I must resolve to be careful, and not make a silly ano of myself. Now that really would be embarrassing!
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