Friday, 30 November 2007

Elizabeth: Le Edad De Oro [Elizabeth: The Golden Age]

We went to see Elizabeth: The Golden Age last weekend. It was somewhat weird watching this film in the capital of the former Spanish Empire, mainly because the film deals rather flamboyantly with the trashing (or do I mean thrashing) of the Spanish Armada by a handful of plucky English sailors and Sir Walter Raleigh. Actual historical truth states that Raleigh had nothing to do with it, and it was Charlie Drake who was the real hero. But this version was more interesting.

The other weird thing was that this was a V.O. (versión original) screening. So it's in English with Spanish subtitles. Except the lengthy scenes at the Spanish Court were not subtitled, because, obviously, we all understand Spanish, don't we?

Good movie though.

Incidentally, these V.O. theatres take their job seriously (I'm talking about Cinés Renoir and Golem): they produce A4-sized info sheets for the films they show. So you get cast and crew listings, synopsis, and other details. It also tells you the actual physical length of the film, for example 1967 metres! The films always start at exactly the advertised time, and the audiences turn off their phones and do not speak for the entire duration! How civilized.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Un Día Malo [A Bad Day]

Neither BetterArf nor I were surprised when we turned on our computers this morning and discovered that the Internet was not working. The landline phone was also kaput. See, we've had these services for about six weeks now, and not paid a bean for them. This is not because of any ideological hatred of Telefonica, it's just that we have not yet figured out how to give them money. BetterArf has tried several times to pay on the Internet, but despite her not-bad-at-all Spanish she has been completely unable to figure out how to do it.

Never mind, I said, I'll go to one of their shops and do it. I had to wait until 10am to do this, and at 10.01 I marched through the door of our nearest Telefonica shop (I knew from previous experience that going to the Telefonica HQ would be a total waste of time). The guy in the shop was surprised to see a customer so early in the day, and astounded when I explained that I wanted to pay my bill. Nono, he says, we only sell mobile phones. You must go to a Post Office or a bank to pay your bill. Oh, right, sorry.

No problem, there's a Correos office just around the corner from us, so I go there. Well, it's Correos (Spanish Post Office) alright, but it's just a sorting office: there's no retail activity going on there. Bugger this. I phone my Spanish-speaking buddy to find out how you actually pay your phone bill. Oh, he says, banks. But only between 8.30 and 10 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Hmmm. Don't worry, he says, I'll call Telefonica. So he did: he had good news. We have not been disconnected. And bad news. It's a line fault: it'll take anything up to 24 hours to be fixed. Right.

I'm wandering around the middle of town, and I remember that there is an actual Correos in the basement of El Corté Inglés. I go there and present my bills, half-expecting to be told that they only deal with these things when there is an x in the month and only if your name is Ignacio. But no, once we've established that I actually want to pay both bills, the very helpful lady taps various numbers into the computer. It won't accept the CIF/NIE/pasaporte number that is on the bill. Hmm. I call BetterArf, and we remember that her old passport was stolen, and Telefonica do not have the new passport number. She gives me the number, and I go home because I've just realised that there's a few things that I need to post: I get them ready and then I return to the Correos. I get the same lady and she taps in the correct passport number. Still no joy.

Pointless bureaucracy part 1
Now, can somebody tell me why this ID thing is so important to Telefonica? We know what the account is, based on the phone number: what is the point of the CIF/NIE/pasaporte number? I'm sure if Osama Bin Laden wanted to pay my phone bill, he could organise it much easier than I can.

Anyway, as I was heading home in the afternoon (having spent half an hour in an Internet Caff making sure I had no earth-shattering emails), my mobile rang and it was a Telefonica engineer asking if my phone was working now. I said I'd be home in ten minutes. It was working when I got back, but he was still in the vicinity and came up to check. And an hour later I had a phone call from a computer at Telefonica suggesting that I press 0 if the problem was fixed, or 1 if it wasn't. So that was pretty good service: the challenge now is to fix things so that we can actually give the buggers money.

Pointless bureaucracy part 2.
This one really irritates me. When we moved into our apartment in Dubai, five years ago, we had to pay a 2000 dirham deposit (current value €370: original value, well over €500, due to the fall of the US dollar, to which the dirham is linked) . We would quite like to get this money back before the dollar plummets further and our deposit ends up completely valueless. Initially, when we moved to Madrid, it was not important: I kind of assumed that the landlord would eventually get their act together and pop the money into my bank account. But nothing happened for several months. Eventually I emailed them via their website. No response. A month later I called them. Oh we sent you emails! Really, which address? The old Dubai-based one, the one that I had disconnected a few days before I left. Not the nice shiny GMail one that I had gone to great lengths to make sure they knew about. Hmmm. Anyway, it's our fault, we didn't give them a final bill from the electricity and water company. Indeed we did not, because the luz y aqua did not turn up to take a final reading until the day we moved out, rather than the previous day that we had booked them for. So, as it was then the weekend, they had no office open that could actually produce a final bill.

Well, says my landlord, that's not my fault. No, says I, and neither is it mine. I email the utilities people asking for a final statement. A week later they email it to me and I copy it to the landlord. The utilities company owes me money from the deposit that I had paid them, which I or an authorised representative can collect at any of their branches. Yeah, right.

Refund please, oh landlord? Now you have to fill in some forms. OK, I say, email them to me. And they did. Three completely fucking pointless forms.
1) Bank details: same as ever. You've had these on file since before I moved in.
2) Lost document disclaimer. This is crazy. Because I'm not an anally-retentive asshole who keeps receipts for five years and more, I no longer have the receipt from them that says I actually paid them the deposit. They undoubtedly do have a copy on file, both paper versions (which they are very fond of) and on the computer. But I have to sign a disclaimer that says I am a stupid pillock and in the event that they actually refund the money, I promise not to claim it again. What perverted mind came up with this, I wonder? And the logic: they have always charged this deposit, they do not let their flats to anyone unless the deposit is paid, therefore I must have paid it.
3) Some kind of tracking form: yes, I returned the keys, yes I'm moving out, some other crap.

Anyway, I get these idiotic documents and I email the landlord and say I'll sign them and fax them back. Ooh, no, she says. We need the originals back. Or I'll print them off, sign them, scan them an email them to you. We need the originals back. For God's sake; are they collecting Biro ink? I know from many years of experience that the UAE Postal Service is one of the worst on the planet. I have a bit of a look at alternatives - FedEx (and I hope to God I've got this wrong) want over €100 to do the job. Correos have alternatives that are faster/safer than regular post, but none of them seem to work outside Europe/America. In the end I settle for regular post, and no doubt I'll end up regretting it.

I hate bureaucrats.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Salida de Dubai [Leaving Dubai]

I don't think I ever did do a post about our last few days in Dubai, so here goes.

The essential things that we had to accomplish were:
1) Sell/get rid of most of the furniture
2) Sell the car
3) Shut down our Etisalat (phone/internet monopolist) accounts
4) Shut down our DEWA (electricity/water monopolist) account
5) Be ready for the packers/shippers
6) Have a little rest
7) Leave

1) The second-hand stuff market in Dubai is controlled by Pakistani dealers. They will plead poverty and say that no-one wants to buy the kind of stuff we are selling (nearly all IKEA stuff in excellent condition), and offer you a couple of Euros for each item. When you have spat on your hand and agreed the deal, they pull out their wallet to pay you, at which point they see you looking at their huge wad and feel obliged to tell you that they never go anywhere with less than 50,000 Dirhams (€9200), in case they have to buy a car. Bastards, snakes, Sindhis probably*.

2) Selling the car was problematic. I got quite a lot of responses from my advertising, but the damn car could tell something was going on and kept breaking down to try to stop me selling it. In the last week we had: a flat tyre (I never had a wrench that was the right size, so it needed to be taken to the fixers), overheating engine (water pump or something), and finally, just as we were about to drive it to the Traffic Department to complete the ownership transfer formalities, a loose cable on the underside (the guy who was buying it and his buddy are both aircraft engineers - they said the cable was responsible for the changing of the gears: I could have driven it to the Traffic Department, but only in first gear). So we went to the Traffic Department without the car. This was close to closing time on a Thursday evening. They would not be opening again until Sunday morning, and BetterArf and I were flying out on Saturday night. It comes to our turn in the queue and they tell us that the car needs a new roadworthiness test. I explain that it passed this test only five weeks ago and they say, no, it's a new rule, whenever you transfer ownership of a car, it has to have a fresh test. Bugger, the car is actually undriveable at this point, and also about fifteen kilometres away. We go to see the facility manager. He is very understanding, and says we can all sign the documents, and the other guys can bring the car and its test certificate on Sunday and finish it off. So, they pay me the balance, express certain doubts about this guy keeping his word (he is a UAE national, they are Sri Lankan, make of that what you will), we exchange email addresses, and hope and pray that this will work out (they sent me an email a few days later: it did work out).

3) Packing day was the 5th of July. Once the packers had arrived, I tootled down to Etisalat in Jebel Ali to shut down my landline, ADSL and mobile accounts. This proved to be much harder than I had expected. The Etisalat billing system was down. No problem, I said, I can check my balances on the Public Cash Payment Machines. No, said the guy, it won't be accurate. Meaning, any outstanding balance will be till 3am this morning, but I might have spent all morning on the phone to my auntie in Australia, and that won't be shown on the outstanding balance until tomorrow. The system in their office is real-time. But it's down. Fecking hell. I couldn't wait around at their office all day until the system came up again. I tried to pay a bit more than the balances we get from the machine, but the guy said he couldn't accept it. So I paid the exact amount, and if I ever move back to the UAE and try to open accounts with Etisalat, they will insist on being paid the outstanding balance.

They did this to me once before - after my first job in Dubai went to ratshit, I left for a bit. Before I left, I tried to pay off all my bills, but they were unable to determine the outstanding amount on my Internet dial-up account. So it kept on going with some kind of monthly rental charge, and by the time I had returned and tried to open new accounts they insisted that I pay them Dhs 700 (€129) to cover the cost of a service that they had not provided and I had obviously not used. Bastardos!

4) I went to the DEWA (electricity/water company) office a couple of weeks before our departure to find out what the score was with final bills etc. I discovered that I could book the disconnection for a certain date/time, and collect/pay the final bill the next day. This would have been cool, because I expected that they would owe me money in the form of a partial refund of my Dhs 1,000 (€184) security deposit. So I booked the disconnection for 5pm on the 4th July. We were staying at a friend's flat by then, so no power at night was not a problem: we'd also checked with the packers: they would do their work the next day whether there was a/c or not. When we arrived back at the flat on the morning of the fifth, we still had power (the switches and meters for the power supply live in a room down the hall - DEWA do not need to enter the flat to read the meter/disconnect the supply).

Bugger. The DEWA guy turned up just as all the packing was finished: he said he had disconnected it the day before, and wanted to know who had put it on again. All very odd, and it meant that we could not get a final bill before leaving Dubai. I had phoned them a few times during the day, and got responses like 'what's the rush' and 'what do you expect me to do about it?' DEWA have a few gazillion miles to go in terms of customer service.

5) Global Relocations (the packers/shippers) turned up at the appointed time, and did their work efficiently. I was a bit disappointed that they had no kind of trolley with them (there were some heavy things that we needed to get rid of, and wheels would have been useful: in the end we bribed the guys a bit to carry them out). But everything was wrapped and packed securely (not a single broken item at the Madrid end!). They could have maybe used a few fewer rainforests-worth of paper in packing the kitchen stuff, and the three rolls of bubble-wrap (weight: zero, volume 0.25 cubic metre) should not have been sent! The point here is that the shipping cost is based on volume rather than weight, so our estimated 6-8 cubic metres became about 15 when it was all packed. That really fucked our budget.

Throughout the day we were taking out stuff that was not to be shipped and leaving it out for anybody who wanted it. BetterArf called the security guys to tell them it was all there for the taking - it was interesting to see the pecking-order amongst the guys who turned up.

And just as we were about to leave, our new next-door neighbour showed up. He was happy to take some of the plants. It turns out he has a small-holding in Andalucia and occasionally has to come to Dubai to do some work. Small world eh?

Finally, it was done: I had expected that it would have been finished by about 1pm, but it was actually 5pm by the time they finished: too late to do a proper handover with the landlord. The weekend was upon us.

6) Our stuff is packed and on its way. Now to meet the guys who are buying my car at the Traffic Department. This is the point where we realise that there's something dangling and clicking on the road under the car (see item 2). Park the car, call the guys, and wait. BetterArf takes a cab down to the Landlord's office to hand in the documents - they finish at 3pm on a Thursday so she stuffs notes through their letterbox. The indefatiguable car-buyers arrive about an hour later. They lift up the car and have a wriggle underneath it, but need some special tools to fix it. No worries, we all jump into their car and head off to item 2. After the Traffic Department, we head, exhausted, to our sanctuary. Amazingly, the lovely, lovely Sri Lankans who have insisted on buying my broken-down car despite all of the problems, take us there - there's obviously something magical about my ex-car that I failed to appreciate but which they prize highly. Possibly it's the red paint-job. Or the furry dice.

So, sanctuary; one of BetterArf's colleagues is putting us up for a couple of nights in deepest Jumeirah. They say that moving house is one of lifes most stressful experiences, on a par with bereavement and divorce. They are wrong: this was worse than anything! I was so exhausted that I can't remember what we did that night. Ate a bit, drank a bit, slept a lot, me supongo.

7) And so we left. We had, for the first time, forsaken Dubai Airport: we were booked on Abu Dhabi-based Etihad. I'd heard nothing but good reports about this airline, and their fares were the best around. You can check-in your luggage at their office on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai up to (I think) 24 hours before your flight, and take a luxury coach from there to Abu Dhabi Airport. Absolutely bloody fantastic. It can easily take you an hour to drive/taxi to Dubai Airport - depending on traffic; it could be a shitload more and you are always at risk of missing your flight. To Abu Dhabi Airport, it's a virtually guaranteed 45 minutes. The flight was grand, marred only by the fact that the destination was Heathrow, the first-world's worst airport bar none.

Do I miss Dubai? Hardly at all. I do miss my buddies, really I do. And I miss the girl who used to come in and do our mountains of ironing. I miss having an apartment that was big enough to live in and accommodate guests - but next year we will get a bigger one. On the upside, we have proper weather that changes throughout the year, we live in a supremely civilized country, we have a King who tells dickheads like Chavez to 'shut up', we have public transport that works, we have freedom of speech and action, we have democracy, we have a government that doesn't need to launch PR things like 'Madrid Cares' - in general the 'caring' is built into the system, we have so much art and culture that it is difficult to keep up with it all. What we have here is real life. And not a small amount of what BetterArf would describe as 'yabadabadoo'.

I'm still lovin' it.

*This may or may not be racist: but I have met both Indians and Pakistanis who've said 'you trust a Sindhi like you trust a snake'. So nerr.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Ah, Inglaterra, Usted Bastardos Inútiles [Oh, England, You Useless Bastards]

I don't usually swear on this blog, but after watching the first half of England's pathetic performance in the Euro 2008 (non) qualifiers, I feel entitled. England were beaten 3-2 tonight by Cerveca Crapasia Croatia. FOR FUCK'S SAKE!

This should have been a goal-fest for England. But the soon-to-be-ex Manager Steve McClaren put a child in goal who apparently has never faced a high-speed ball heading his way before, so he ducked out of the way every time one came towards him. Jesú Ache Cristo (as we say in Spain when we want to say Jesus H fecking Christ).

It breaks my heart, really it does. We invented the game! I was nine years old the last time England did anything truly impressive in soccer (we won the World Cup, at home, in 1966, in case your memory isn't that long). Now I'm fifty. How long do I have to live until England's Association Football 'team' actually manages to deliver something?

I'm inclined to agree with the UK Sports Minister who recently said he thought a lot of 'top' players were seriously overpaid. I don't know the ins and outs of them playing for the national team - I suspect they get their travel, accommodation, personal hairdressers and food paid for, and a few quid in walking-around money. Whatever it is, they don't seem to feel any hunger.

I suppose, in a way, it's a relief. Next summer we won't have to watch England doing their usual can we/shall we/ will we/won't we SHITE. We can just watch games played by competent teams and enjoy the football they play. McClaren should never have been given this job.

But the head honchos at the FA. Well. I just don't know. They have develped a spectacular record for choosing Managers who are, at best, Not Much Good, at worst, Total Wankers. So I think the selection of the next Manager should be made by one of these:
a) Some chickens
b) Me
c) Six cuttlefish


Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Con Salsa [With Sauce]

I'm a fan of saucy food - be it a curry, a stew, bistec con salsa 'gravy'. Sadly, most Spanish eateries think that a fatty slice of unnamed animal with a few underdone chips and not even a smidgeon of sauce is an acceptable part of a meal. This always disappoints me. So I was very interested to read about Momo in Chueca on Notes From Madrid - most of their main dishes feature a sauce and you get a decent helping of spuds. I went to check it out yesterday lunchtime and was suitably impressed: they will definitely be getting a lot more of my custom in future.

But it's a shame that there is such a dearth of sauces in Spanish café food when one of the key ingredients, a good stock, is widely and cheaply available. In Dubai I used to make my own stock, boiling vegetables with beef bones or chicken carcasses until you finished up with a flavoursome liquid. But it took hours to do and was generally a pain in the backside. If I had no stock to hand, I would use cubes: Oxo were ok, Knorr were lethally salty. Quality liquid stock is available in big supermarkets in the UK, but it's prohibitively expensive. In Madrid, you can can buy a litre of caldo (chicken, beef, fish, vegetable) for about €1.60 at any supermercado and lots of alimentaciónes. And it's brilliant: not salty, but really tasty.

It's still raining.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Ciento cincuenta Pasos* [One Hundred and Fifty Steps]

One of the disadvantages of living on the seventh floor in a building whose elevator dates from the sixties or seventies is that you will occasionally have to walk up the stairs because the elevator is either broken, or some %^%^$ has not ensured that the door is closed properly. It's usually our door that sticks, but the fourth floor one is a bit dodgy too. Murphy's Law being what it is, the lift is only ever out of action when you have returned home after
a) you have consumed copious amounts of alcohol, or
b) you have bought and are carrying the entire contents of the local shops.

Today it was 'b', and I have to go out again later to buy more stuff.

And now it's raining. Moan, bitch, mutter, grumble.

Still lovin' it though.

UPDATE: El ascensor es functionar! Which reminds me: in my Spanish class a few weeks ago, our regular teacher was off sick and the stand-in taught us the names of rooms in houses/flats. (I still do not believe that the Spanish call the space between your front door and the rest of the house/flat, 'el hall'. I just don't). He had a different style from our usual teacher: she likes to torture us with grammar, whereas his preferred method is pronunciation. The Spanish word for a lift is 'ascensor'. Say it.


No. Say 'orrrrrrrrrr.'


Vale**. Say 'then'.


No, not 'then' like English then. 'Then' with more push on the 'th'.


Vale. Say 'thensorrrrrrrrrrr.'


Muy bien. Say 'ass'.


Vale. 'Assthensorrrrrrrrr.'

Athsensor, Arsensorr, Ascensor, etc.

*I don't know if that's right - if anyone who really speaks Spanish would care to correct me - I mean steps or stairs en una escalera.
**Vale, pronounced bahlay. Means OK.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Motín [Riot]

There was a tragic incident on the Madrid Metro last weekend; a neo-Nazi soldier fatally stabbed a 16-year-old youth and injured two others while they were on their way to an Anti-Fascist demonstration. As a result of this, there was a bit of a riot in town. We missed it all, but we did walk down one street just off Gran Vía, and were puzzled by the trail of destruction we followed. Smashed shop windows, overturned bins and plants, burnt-out recycling bins.

Today we were heading towards Puerta del Sol (this seems to be where demonstrations usually take place in Madrid) and we were astonished to see dozens of riot police stationed all around the square. It seems that there was to be another demonstration, and the police were out in force to prevent any more trouble: they had some bloody big guns and they looked pretty damn scary.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

My First Podcast

This morning BetterArf sent me a link to the website of a Canadian first-time author who decided to make Podcasts of his novel. I thought it would be fun to try doing a bit of my as yet unpublished novel as an experiment.

PS: Grandma is a voice in Chinwala's head.

Monday, 12 November 2007

¿Por Que No Te Callas? [Why Don't You Shut Up?]

Ooh, heck. Spain's King Juan Carlos tells Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez to shut up during a conference between Iberia and Latin America. See it here.

UPDATE: Now it's a smash-hit ringtone! Damn, why didn't I think of that?

Salida Del Sol [Sunrise]

This is what I saw from the terrace at about 7.30 this morning:

By the way, the Spanish word 'sonrisa' means 'smile'. I'm still lovin' it.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

La Vuelta del Tornillo [The Turn of the Screw]

This might turn out to be a bit of an anti-Chinese rant. If it does, I apologise. It's actually a rant against people who think that the cheapest possible thing can also be the best thing, even if it doesn't work properly.

What's brought this on, Keefie?

Well, when you move into a new home, you inevitably have to do things like putting up shelves, or hooks, or whatever. And you also have to get all your electrical gadgets working. We shipped a fair amount of electrical stuff from Dubai - computers, monitors, printers, phone chargers, and sundry other stuff. Half of the gadgets have Brit-style 3-pin plugs, and the rest have crappy 2-pin jobbies. It so happens that Spain uses crappy 2-pin jobbies, so we needed to get adaptors for the 3-pin plugs. The sensible place to get adaptors would be a Ferreteria. These are lovely, old-fashioned places that sell ironmongery, hardware, tools etc. Be advised, I have never come across one that sells ferrets. They are almost all family-run, mom 'n' pop type places, which means, of course, that they will not be open at the times when I want to buy the stuff I need - typically Sundays.

So, one Sunday, I want to buy a couple of 3-pin to 2-pin adaptors. All the Ferreterias are shut. But all is not lost; the Chinese we-sell-absolutely-everything-for-your-house shop is open. So I buy the afore-mentioned adaptors, probably for 50 cents each, and I go home and try to use them. By crikey, it's a tight fit to get the 3-pin plug into the front end, and an equally hard struggle to get the 2 pins into the socket. But, it works. Some time later, I naturally need to unplug one device and connect another one, and at this point the front end of the adaptor decides to part company with the back end, leaving a lot of dangerously exposed, electrically live, metalwork in the socket.

Another weekend. I had bought a towel rail and some bathroom hooks from IKEA. I did not buy screws because IKEA stuff normally comes with the exact amount minus 1 and I was sure that my toolbox contained dozens of the blighters. Wrong on both counts. So I trundle off to the Chinese place and get a packet of screws. They pay me to take them away.

When I start the work I see why the screws are so cheap. When you give them that final twist to make sure they are nice and tight, the head snaps off. This is obviously not good because it is the tapered head that holds whatever you are erecting in place. The first time it happened I thought it was a one-off. But when the second screw did exactly the same thing I was somewhat dischuffed. It is incredibly difficult to get rid of the shaft of a broken screw once you've stuck it into your wall.

These two experiences have left me very wary of Chinese places in general. It does not make me feel good that I bought a couple of plug adaptors for 1 Euro, or a sackful of screws for 75 cents. The damn things didn't work, and I would have willingly paid three or four times what I did pay to get stuff that just does its job.

And then I read about the Chinese Chang-E 1 moon program somewhere. I can't remember where, but I got it into my head that the entire cost of the project, involving numerous unmanned launches, moon rovers and finally some Chinese dudes actually landing on the moon was supposed to be $95 million. I mean, are they gonna buy rivets and stuff from this we-sell-absolutely-everything-for-your-moonshot shop? How successful will that be?

But I just Googled the Chinese moonshot and was disappointed to see that the total cost of the project will be about $10.7 billion, which is a bit more like it.

Oh, and a week after the screw incident, and subsequently buying beautiful Spanish screws for 5 cents each, I discovered that my toolbox has a little chest of drawers built into the front. And the little drawers contain about 100 shiny brass screws of various sizes.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Haciendo la compra [doing the shopping]

Shopping in Madrid is quite different from shopping in the UK or shopping in Dubai. What I mean by 'shopping' is going out to buy edible and non-edible consumable stuff. Durable stuff also counts as shopping, of course, but I don't do it several times a week so I'm not talking about that now.

Spain seems quite attached to the idea of small general stores and specialised shops sprinkled throughout the town. I have not yet found an actual shopping mall in Madrid Centro. I'm sure there are some in the burbs, but I haven't been there yet. Same goes for hypermarkets. There are a few supermercados in/near the centre. There's a Carrefour Express in Lavapiés, a dreadful Dia (remember Kwik Save in the UK? This is worse) near Chueca, and half a million El Corte Inglés's all over the place.

El Corte Inglés is a weird institution. Modelled closely on the old-fashioned English department store idea, they develop in clusters of adjacent buildings and frequently occupy numerous floors. They seem to sell pretty much everything, usually at prices that are quite a bit higher than what you wanted to pay. They probably have half a dozen clusters in Madrid, and they are present in all major Spanish towns. Oddly, they do not seem to have any competitors.

But here's the thing. Because they are department stores, they feel obliged to position the cosmetics department inside the main entrance. This means that whenever you visit them you are assailed by this miasma of a thousand different aromas that permeates the air. Don't get me wrong, many of these aromas on their own can be quite pleasant. But put them all together and I literally want to puke. If you are ever in Madrid and you visit El Corte Inglés at Puerta del Sol, you might be able to catch a glimpse of El Git Inglés rushing around with a hankie clutched over his nose and mouth trying to get to or from the supermercado without suffering too much olfactory damage.

In the same way that UK corner shops were taken over by Asians (because they are prepared to work extremely long hours for virtually no money), many of the local alimentaciónes in Spain are run by Chinese.

Saturday, 3 November 2007


A little over a month ago we went on our first adventure outside Madrid. There's an ancient little town about 50km to the north called Segovia. The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it really is quite amazing. My interest in it started when I read that the Guardian Hay Festival would be held there at the end of September. In case you don't know, the Hay Festival began as a kind of book fair in Hay-On-Wye in Wales about 20 years ago, and has expanded considerably since then. I just loved the idea of stepping off the train in a Spanish town and asking someone '¿Hay Festival?' (hay in Spanish means 'is there?').

The Festival was on for four days, but because of BetterArf's work schedule we could only go on the last day. None of the literary events scheduled for that day appealed to us, but we went anyway because I'd been looking forward to it. It turned out to be not the best possible day to go: the weather was overcast and stormy-looking, BetterArf was coming down with a cold, and the Director of Planning (moi) had neglected to check the train times. I mean, you would think they'd be every half-hour, wouldn't you?

We arrived at Atocha station and we had just missed a train. We stared in incomprehension at the timetable. The trains run every two hours! Worse than that, it takes two bloody hours to get there. Unbelievable. When it came, we discovered that this Cercania (regional train) had the hardest seats ever designed, stopped at every village on the way, and had a real hard time dragging itself up the mountains. Some of the scenery was stunning, and I would have taken some photos had it not been for the fact that every single (polycarbonate, I presume) window had been scratched to buggery with the names of some cretinous vandals. Grrr.

When we finally arrived at Segovia we had a quick look round, and then it was well into lunchtime. What you have to have for lunch in Segovia is Cochinillo, roast suckling pig. This we duly did, and then headed back to the railway station. The station is a fair way from the old town, and we attempted to catch a taxi but there were none to be had and we had not allowed enough time to walk there. Bugger! Another train missed. So we spent a fairly dismal hour and a half in a not very nice bar opposite the station. We did see a poster at the station promising that a fast service to Madrid would be starting in December.

All in all, a pretty crap day out, but the town itself is absolutely gorgeous and we'll definitely be back in the spring. Here's some not very good pictures:

Did I mention the Roman Aqueduct?

It's over 1 km long, over 100 ft high and held together by gravity. Absolutely amazing.