Wednesday, 31 December 2008
But as we got further away from Sol, bars and shops were closing. We found one street in Barrio De Los Letras where some bars were open, and had a glass in three of them. And then we walked up Paseo del Prado and Paseo de Recoletas: these are broad streets with an equally broad walkway on one side, and they are normally full of people. This evening, they were deserted. Likewise, Plaza de Chueca. Every single bar was closed.
Here's the deal. In Spain, New Year's Eve is a serious family occasion. They'll be feasting until midnight, after which, bars and clubs will open up, and those who feel so inclined will party till dawn.
Meanwhile, in Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed (de facto Ruler) cancelled all New Year's celebrations yesterday, as a gesture of solidarity with the Gaza Strippers. I'm surprised at how little outcry there has been about this from my UAE blogging buddies. All it means is that every single hotel in Dubai will lose a shitload of money, and people who had tickets for these events will miss out on a great night, and probably not get their money back. And the good people of Gaza will be thinking 'well, I'm really glad they did that, it'll definitely stop those Israeli bastards from killing us, thank you Shiekh Mo.'
Tuesday, 30 December 2008
MamaDuck has done a post with two or three embedded videos of a range of people singing them here. Enjoy.
Thursday, 25 December 2008
Friday, 19 December 2008
I know that recessions or economic downturns were supposed to operate on 11-year cycles, but we seem to have missed the one that was due for 2003. Ah, well, that's it then. Governments have abolished boom and bust, it's boom all the way from now on (actually wasn't 2003 when the dotcom bubble burst?).
What is happening now is pretty hard to comprehend. Banks began to realise, all of a sudden, that not only did they not have the money they thought they had, but they actually had anti-money in extremely large amounts. I find this to be totally astonishing. The idea of a bank is that it is a safe place to keep your money. You, as a customer, understand that while you are not actually using your money, your bank will use it for its own purposes (normally the creation of more money). That's okay, as long as you can get access to your money whenever you need it.
The problem is that banks are a bit more complex than that. If every single customer turns up on the same day and wants to withdraw all of their money, the bank will not be able to do it. Each bank branch only stocks enough cash to deal with its normal daily business. It could take them a few days to physically get cash money to the place where it is needed. But here's the thing: they will have cash tied up in medium or long-term deposits, in shares or bonds or whatever. They will not be able to immediately extract their money from these things.
And so there's a panic reaction from the public. There's a 'run on the bank'. There are paper assets but no actual cash. There's insolvency.
Normally a bank would get around short-term liquidity problems by borrowing from other banks, and that has worked well for centuries. But now, banks are wary of lending to each other. In fact, they're just not doing it. And then they discover that their highly-paid rocket-scientist investment bankers have placed the bank under some exceedingly large obligations. They have huge bills to pay, and they simply cannot raise the funds to pay them. There's insolvency.
How did all this happen? We have to blame Ronnie Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. They adopted an economic model that said markets were the best thing. You would find true value in a market. Traders in a market would never do anything bad, because the results would hurt them too.
So money market dudes were allowed to invent all kinds of stupid stuff that nobody could understand, with the end result, here in 2008, that the Western world owes itself more money than actually exists.
There is this place called Planet Zog. This is thought to be the location of the difference between the world's GDP and its financial liabilities. If it is, the place must be awash with money.
Which brings us to the real point of this post: what exactly is money?
Money is a means of exchange. It's a way to place a value on things. In the early days of currency (in the West - I'm not talking about conch-shells or stuff like that), money was real money: its value came from the value of the metal it was made from, gold, copper, brass or whatever. Then we got paper money, because the metal stuff was just too heavy to carry around. In Britain, banknotes carry the legend 'I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of x pounds.' What that used to mean was, 'this paper is worth the equivalent value in gold, and you can have the gold if you want.' What it means now is 'I want you to believe this is worth something, and don't ask for the gold because we sold it.'
We now have the slightly amusing sight of Western governments begging Arabian Gulf states and China for money. But guess what. They are broke too. We might as well adopt the Zimbabwe dollar as a global currency.
Sunday, 14 December 2008
Madrid's Christmas budget has been slashed from about €4.6 million last year to €1.6 million for 2008. The town is still looking pretty festive, although the lights are less plentiful than we saw last year.
We tootled into town this afternoon: MamaDuck had seen a notice pinned up at work about Carol Singing on Calle Preciados. It was supposed to be outside Zara starting at 4 o'clock, but when we arrived (in prompt Madrileño fashion at quarter past) there was only a fed-up looking guy with a guitar. It turns out there are two Zara shops on that street, so we joined the group of Santa-hat-clad singers outside the other one. Actually, the Duck did - my singing tends to scare people away. They sang mostly English songs, but threw in two or three Spanish ones as well. MamaDuck had bought some CDs of Spanish 'villancicos' a few days ago, so we knew the tunes even if the words were a mystery.
After about an hour of this, the Duck decided she wanted a break, so we wandered around the back of El Corte Inglés, where we had to fight our way through a crowd of about 48 million people to get to a bar. The crowd was there to look at 'Cortylandia', a massive animatronic wossname on the rear facade of the building.
When we got back to the carol singers, they'd been joined by a crazy old man who was playing an industrial-strength harmonica. He could also moonwalk and stand perfectly still for ages. Useful talents to have, obviously. Oh, and it snowed! Only for about fifteen minutes, and only tiny flakes that had no chance of settling, but it definitely feels like Christmas now.
The guys above are one of the more spectacular busking outfits in Madrid. I don't know what the instruments are called, but they're like the inside of a grand piano, and the players beat hell out of the strings with hammers. Fantastico!
Merry Christmas, you lot.
Thursday, 4 December 2008
Saturday, 22 November 2008
The sheds, apparently, will be populated by people selling aromatherapy stuff, organic foodstuffs and all the other crap that the dedicated new-ager cannot live without. This will go on until Jan 11.
Monday, 17 November 2008
It seems that the squiggly words are now more word-like: they're not real words, but they seem to have a combination of vowels and consonants arranged so that you can actually pronounce the word, and this makes it easier for you to decipher it and type it in.
Wednesday, 5 November 2008
I might stay up all night to see how this goes. Then again, I might not.
Okay, so no foot stamping. Obama won handsomely, and I am a bunny of happiness. I just wish we didn't have to wait until January to get the spawn-of-Satan Bush out of La Casa Blanca - he can still do some more serious damage in the remaining time.
Tuesday, 4 November 2008
It amazes me that Microsoft, for all their vast buckets of money, could never write an operating system that's even a quarter as good as OS X. And the Apple hardware is just stunningly beautiful: this keyboard feels so great that I think I might be inspired to write a bit more of Tybalt and Theo!
I know I'm half preaching to the converted here, but if you haven't left the Dark Side yet, you have no excuses at all (except financial!). Since Macs moved onto Dual Core Intel chips, you can run Windoze inside OS X (if you have the Parallels software), so the old excuse of having to replace all your old software with Mac versions no longer applies.
Just go for it: you might even start to enjoy using computers again!
Sunday, 2 November 2008
Thursday, 30 October 2008
Look. You know about this Authonomy website for aspiring writers, yes? I'm on it, and so is Alexander McNabb, Mr Fake Plastic Souks. He's a great writer, and he's got this really great, outrageously funny book called Space. For the last two or three weeks it has been in the Top 5 of the Editor's Desk. This means you get a proper review from a HarperCollins editor, and maybe even a publishing contract. But only if you're in the Top 5 at midnight tomorrow (31st Oct).
Here's the thing: Space has just slipped down to number 6. So, all you literaties, glitteraties and arty-farties, get along to Authonomy.com, and have a read. If you like it (and how could you not?), do a very quick sign-up and put it on your bookshelf (the link that says 'Back The Book').
While you're at it, you could do the same thing for Tybalt & Theo, by a slightly more modest author.
Winter arrived with a vengeance yesterday. At approximately 4.40 in the afternoon. MamaDuck had arrived home from work at 4pm, and reported the weather to be fairly pleasant. I arrived home from shopping at 5pm, absolutely chilled to the bone. Horrible, it was.
Northern Spain has had snow overnight, and forecast temperatures for Madrid for the next five days don't get higher than 10°C, and go down as low as 2°C. Brrr.
So this is definitely Cocido season. Cocido Madrileño is a wondrous thing: soup and stew, all in one. Warming, filling, and almost healthy (it contains all major food groups except chocolate), it's absolutely perfect for lunch or dinner on a cold winter's day. Basically, it's a big ole stew. It contains scrag-end of unnamed meat, big lumps of fat, chorizo, morcilla (black pudding), potato, carrot, onion and cabbage, and loads of garbanzos (chick peas). There could also be a chicken in there. These are all stewed together for a few hours, and then some of the stock is drained off. You cook up some noodles in this stock, and serve it as the first course. And then you serve the meat and veg as the main course.
I've had it several times as a menu del dia, and usually been disappointed, mainly because the main course is bone dry, and I likes a bit o' gravy with me dinner. I had one today though, and it was very nearly perfect. They bring you a bowl with some cooked noodles in it, and an earthenware jug that contains everything else: you decide how much liquid you want with each bit of the meal.
Sunday, 19 October 2008
We went to see 'Burn After Reading' last night. It's the latest Coen brothers film, and I'm always up for watching their work. Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovitch and Frances McDormand (the lady cop from 'Fargo') are the leads.
What a funny movie this is. We were completely baffled by the first half hour or so, but the story grew, the script got funnier, and, well, just go see it!
We saw it in English with Spanish subtitles. There's a lot of profanity in the film, so I learned a lot of new Spanish words from the subtitles.
Friday, 17 October 2008
I suspect that my laptop, this one here, which I've had for almost three years, is not very well. It's jam-packed with junk, data, and probably some malware. Nothing that a good ole reformat wouldn't fix, but I'm not prepared to do that.
MamaDuck, who ocassionally uses this heap of poo, has suggested that I should think about replacing it. So, I thought about it yesterday. And what I thought was, 'I'll leave the Dark Side. I want a Mac.
Meaning, I am sick and tired of PCs that don't work properly, I'm sick unto death of Micro$oft. I will get me a MacBook. This is not an easy decision for me: I've used PCs for over 20 years, and all my software is for PCs. But MacBooks have Intel chips in 'em now, and they can run Windoze and Windoze software.
I had the pleasure of using a MacBook for half a day when I was in England in August, and I was really impressed. My friend who owned it said he bought it on Ebay.
I'm not really clued up about Ebay - it didn't really work in Dubai, and I think it barely works in Spain. So I had a look on Ebay.co.uk, and found a machine that I was interested in. And then I tried to sign up. Of course when I put my country in, it sent me to Ebay.es, all in Spanish, and only offering goods for sale in Spain. Poo.
Not to worry, got in touch with my baby in the UK, and he can handle it from there. I have to say, he's an expert Ebay user - he even buys baked beans and cheese there.
So this ultra-high-spec MacBook was going for about 360 quid, but the auction finished about an hour ago. I was prepared to go to 550, but we weren't going to bid until the last minute. In the last hour, my potential bid was bust. It had already gone up to 600. In the end it went for 720.
No matter, I've found a couple more. One auction expires tomorrow afternoon. I'll keep you posted about how we get on.
UPDATE: 22nd October. Got one yesterday. Having watched 3 auctions, I realised that my bid for the spec I wanted was too low. Finally bagged it for 721 squid. More than I wanted to pay, but not at all bad considering it's only a month old, and about 3 times faster than my current lappy. Also has 2 gigs of RAM.
Friday, 10 October 2008
Here it is, then. The beginnings of my new book, Tybalt & Theo.
Here's the blurb:
Theo has just lost his bank 97 million pounds. The global finance industry is in meltdown. He thinks he is going to lose his job, one way or the other. A chance accident sends him hurtling towards certain death at Newgate Underground station, but when he wakes up, he finds himself very much alive, in Newgate Gaol. In 1608.
Meanwhile, Tybalt finds himself propelled forward from 1608 into a world he cannot understand. He discovers the dubious delights of fast food, appears on stage at the Globe and fails to find his good friend Will Shakspere.
Here's the cover:
And here's where you can read the first 10,000-odd words.
Tuesday, 7 October 2008
Ever since I finished writing 'Travels in Xanadu-du', 15 months ago, there's been a bit of a hole in my life. I'm grateful to those of you who actually bought it, but clearly it hasn't reached the market it's intended for (and it is a bit wierd, and not without its problems, I'd be the first to admit).
A little over a month ago, publishers HarperCollins launched a website called Authonomy. This is a website where aspiring authors can showcase their wares and get valuable feedback on it. And if they are insanely lucky, can have it reviewed by HC editors and ermm, maybe, just maybe, published.
I've been hanging out there quite a lot, and so has my buddy Alexander McNabb (well, I say he's my buddy, for some bizarre reason we never actually met while I was in Dubai, but, you know). Alexander's excellent book 'Space' is currently at number 9 in the Authonomy chart. Which is just incredible because I'm pretty sure it's being supported by real people, not just his nearest and dearest.
I've been wanting to write more since my first book, but suffering from an ideas drought. I've also been pretty busy with the real work.
Yesterday, I sat down with the deliberate intention of thinking up an idea for a novel. I closed my eyes, relaxed a bit, and bang! There it was. I scribbled down a plot outline and then began to write. Yesterday I produced 1432 words, and today I gave it a full day and produced 3902 (a full-length novel is between 80,00 and 120,000 words). And I am still laughing my socks off.
Here's the thing that thrilled me, the thing that I had almost forgotten. Once you start writing a piece of fiction, there is almost nothing you can do to stop your characters from making it up as they go along. They just do stupid stuff, follow the path that they want to follow, and all you have have do is write down what they do and what they say. It's exhilarating!
But I think I've learned a few things from the previous book and certainly learned stuff from the Authonomy website, so I reckon the new book is gonna be a corker!
I'll be boring you rigid with this, you mark my words.
Saturday, 4 October 2008
Friday, 3 October 2008
If anyone had asked me how Madrid ranks in size of European cities, I'd have guessed about tenth. And I'd have been wrong. I only mention this because MamaDuck read something on the topic a few days ago. In fact, Madrid is Europe's third-largest city.
London is number one, obviously, followed by Berlin. But what about Paris? Surely that's the second-biggest? Mais non, it's fifth, with just a bit over 2 million peeps.
Here's the full top 100, and it contains lots of surprises. I should point out that the figures are city administrative areas, not 'greater' or metropolitan areas.
You learn something new every day.
Sunday, 28 September 2008
Monday, 22 September 2008
2. Nettle tea (nope: I really only like tea that's made out of, like, tea)
3. Huevos rancheros (sounds Spanish - must o' done)
4. Steak tartare (only once though...)
6. Black pudding (fried and crunchy)
7. Cheese fondue (why?)
8. Carp (don't think so)
9. Borscht (beetroot, yeuch!)
10. Baba ghanoush
13. PB&J (peanut butter & jelly) sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses (???)
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns (how bizarre)
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes (???)
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese (yueck: used to sell it when I worked on the deli counter at Sainsbury's - it was only ever bought by Martians)
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper (hottest chilli on the planet, thank you but NO!)
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters (snot on a shell - not doing it again)
29. Baklava (not doing that again either)
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi (?? Lassi I think, yes)
34. Sauerkraut (yes, but, why)
35. Root beer float (root beer with a blob of ice cream? Yepp)
36. Cognac with a fat cigar (don't do cigars)
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly
40. Oxtail (one of my favourite Spanish dishes is rabo de torro)
41. Curried goat (half a point - roast goat, not curried)
42. Whole insects (no fucking way. Filleted is okay)
43. Phaal (not knowing)
44. Goat’s milk (made into cheese, yes)
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more (wasted on me - I'd only put Coke in it)
46. Fugu (poisonous fish? feck off)
47. Chicken tikka masala (England's national dish - of course!)
48. Eel (not knowingly)
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut (bleuch)
50. Sea urchin (bleuch)
51. Prickly pear
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine (sounds good though - gotta lurve dem trans-fats)
60. Carob chips
62. Sweetbreads (I'd rather die)
63. Kaolin (strangely, yes (with morphine, right?))
64. Currywurst (made-up food)
65. Durian ('the smell evokes reactions from deep appreciation to intense disgust...')
66. Frogs’ legs (the waitress who served it was a vegetarian friend, and she explained exactly how they got the legs when she took the order: first and last time)
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette (despite liking haggis, I couldn't stoop to chitterlings)
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
77. Hostess Fruit Pie (???)
79. Lapsang souchong
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant
85. Kobe beef
88. Flowers (the beer, yes, the plant product, no)
89. Horse (not knowingly)
90. Criollo chocolate (???)
92. Soft shell crab (too much effort)
93. Rose harissa
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
We went to see Mamma Mia again last night - this time, not 'the movie', but 'la pelicula'. Yes folks, we saw it in Spanish, at a marvellous old-style cinema called Palafox. It has steeply-raked seating and ushers in tailcoats. Very smart.
Friday, 19 September 2008
I've been a good boy all week, working hard and making progress with my current JFH (Job From Hell). So I thought I'd give myself the afternoon off. This involved buying a copy of the Grauniad, and retiring to the James Joyce pub to read it, accompanied by several cups of tea (that's not how you spell 'Murphy's', Keefie, and those glass cups are damn big - ed).
I wish I hadn't. Today's Grauniad is replete with stories of global economic meltdown, largely prompted by the firesale of HBOS (Halifax/Bank Of Scotland) to LloydsTSB and the 'rescue' of Lehman Bros in the US.
I'm a simple geezer, financially. I tend to go along with the idea that if you don't have cash money to pay for something then that means you cannot afford it, and it's better to wait until you can. Everybugger else in the 'developed' world seems to think otherwise, and get themselves into all kinds of shit with credit cards, personal loans and whopping great mortgages. Hell, even I could spot the problem with giving people a 125% mortgage: instant, massive, negative equity.
So, not content with Dubya wasting 5 TRILLION DOLLARS on a pointless and unwinnable war in Iraq, we now face the complete and utter meltdown of the western financial
Woe is you.
On a lighter note, there's a brilliant story about a crap golfer.
Tuesday, 16 September 2008
I am a bit of a luney when it comes to taking pictures of the moon. I like trying to do it, but it's a bit tricky when your camera doesn't have Hubble Space Telescope mode. I'd just started eating my dinner on the terrace this evening when my eye was caught by an orange blob in the sky behind an illuminated church spire. I grabbed my camera and took a load of photos as the moon rose. Two of them were more or less in focus:
Saturday, 13 September 2008
Mamaduck has been working as a volunteer on a little farm (finca, in Spanish) in Aranjuez for the last week, and will be doing the same for the coming week too. Today was her day off, so I got the train to Aranjuez this morning - it's only a 40-minute trip from Madrid. We mooched around the town for a bit - it has several palaces and places of interest, and we took the 50-minute Chiquitren tour of the town.
The Chiquitren is the kind of thing you see in lots of tourist places - the 'engine' is built to look like an old steam locomotive, but it's actually a deisel-driven truck pulling three 'carriages'. The carriages are open-sided and extremely cramped: if you were not well-acquainted with the person opposite you at the start of the trip, you certainly would be by the end after you'd had each other's knees in your groin for the duration. We could barely walk by the time we got off.
We had a long slow lunch, and then at 4 p.m. it was cool enough to set off walking to the finca. It took about an hour, and we were more than ready for a brief siesta. Then I had a tour of the place, which is actually on two sites. The volunteers - last week there were five of them, next week it's down to four - stay on the 'huerta', or vegetable garden. The owners of the finca stay on the other site, down the lane, with two slobbery dogs, two donkeys, a horse, two pigs and a bunch of chickens.
And at about about 7.30 we set off back to the railway station and I caught the train back to Madrid: totally chilled and completely exhausted by long walks and that special air you get in the country.
Tonight in Madrid is 'La Noche En Blanco' - The White Night. This is the third year they've been doing this, and basically there's loads of events going on all through the night, and lots of major galleries are open and free. Being a boring old knackered fart, I won't be partaking. Sorry. But at least I gave you a picture of a pig.
Wednesday, 10 September 2008
It's one thirty a.m. Plaza de Chueca is deserted. It's awash with rain and chunks of ice. We've just had the most unbelievable storm. For at least twenty minutes there was thunder, lightning, and hailstones that could break a window and that have probably dented the bodywork of any cars on the street. This'll be that global warming thing, I expect.
Tuesday, 9 September 2008
The building at the end of our square has been clothed in scaffolding for several months, under the guise of having its facade fixed and painted. There's not much actual sign of any work being done, but the owners of the building have taken the opportunity of blocking out their tenants' view by selling huge advertising posters to cover up the scaffolding. This first happened on 1st May - the whole plaza was tinged orange by an ad for Easyjet. The next month it was replaced by a dingy green thing, an ad for a men's perfume. After a month of that they had no buyers, so they took the poster down and re-erected it inside-out, so all we had to look at was white space.
Yes! A fantastic image of London, hugely Photoshopped - the trees are not that green, the river is not that blue, and it's unlikely you could actually take a photo like that in one go. So congratulations to whoever put that together. It certainly attracts a lot of interest down in the square - people stop and stare and point things out to each other. If you go to the website www.visitlondon.com/es you'll see this image as the page background. Oddly, if you switch the site to English, you don't get the image.
Sunday, 7 September 2008
Friday, 5 September 2008
I was alerted to a new website yesterday: authonomy.com. It's run by publishers HarperCollins, and lets authors upload samples of their work and then suffer utter humiliation by being reviewed by other members of the site. Each month, the top five manuscripts are promised a perusal by HarperCollins editors. Cool idea, methinks.
I signed up yesterday and uploaded about 12,000 words of 'Travels in Xanadu-du' (10,000 is the minimum for you to have your work made public, but it's an achingly difficult process to upload the stuff - you have to make each chapter into a separate Word file, and the upload process frequently falls over for no apparent reason).
So get on over there and say nice things about my book.
Wednesday, 3 September 2008
Google accidentally unveiled their new Microsoft-killer yesterday. Today it's available, and I've just downloaded it. It's called Google Chrome, and it's a web browser. I've been using it for about ten minutes, and I'm in lurve. As a web designer, I have to have lots of browsers kicking around for testing, but I suspect that Chrome is going to become my default browser. It's simple-looking, but very clever, and the reason I love it more than any other is that it is not made by Microsoft: it is not part of the operating system, and it costs me nothing.
The title says it all. Mamma Mia! Oh My God! ¡$^%^&*%^%%$#!
The title is an expression of disbelief, shock, horror, whatever. The movie certainly delivers that. I'll just remind you at this point that I am a Libran, and so I am physically and mentally incapable of deciding whether I hate something or whether I love it. In the case of Mamma Mia, it's a complete draw: I totally hate it, and I totally love it.
During my trolling around England, I was quite keen to go see it, but they don't make cinemas accessible by public transport anymore: all cinemas are located on greenfield sites on the edge of towns, and if you don't have a car and are too cheap to hire a taxi you can pretty much forget about visiting them. So I decided to keep my carbon footprint (my God, I never even knew I had one till I got to England!) the same size, and wait until I got back to Madrid. I knew it was on in V.O. (Version Original) because MamaDuck had already seen it and loved it and was prepared to go and see it again.
I have previously confessed online that I love the music of ABBA. Really, it is sublime, and stop giggling at the back. I also love Greece, where the movie is set (more specifically it was filmed on Skopelos, where Mr & Mrs Dubaibilly have bought a house and are planning to retire (and where we are supposed to visit in 2010)). The downside is, I more or less hate musicals as a genre; they can work well on stage, but musicals as movies don't normally do it for me.
So, we have a preposterous plot, carefully engineered to introduce the various songs. We have some excellent actors (Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and many others), none of whom have had outstanding careers as singers for reasons that soon become obvious. And here's this movie: cheesy, tear-jerking, trite, stupid, mad, unbelievable.
Go see it.
Monday, 1 September 2008
The results are in, so here's the post. How To Make Fantastic Bread has been sold to The Fat Expat.
Most people's idea of a holiday is to go to one place, stay there for a week or two, and then come home. I suspect life is more complicated than that for expats: you'll have one or two families to visit, in two or more locations. My two-and-a-bit-week trip went like this:
EasyJet Madrid -> Liverpool
Train Liverpool -> Scunthorpe
Train Scunthorpe -> Doncaster
Train Doncaster -> London
Coach London -> Warwick
Coach Warwick -> Liverpool
EasyJet Liverpool -> Madrid
For once, I had planned all of this well in advance, and so avoided being charged rip-off prices. All of my trips in the UK, plus MamaDuck's trip from Liverpool to Scunthorpe and back, cost 117 squids. The cheapest segment was also the longest, from Doncaster to King's Cross, an incredible bargain at a tenner.
As I mentioned earlier, there was a surprise party to celebrate MamaDuck's Dad's 80th birthday. It was a stupendous feat of logistics to get the entire family in the same place at the same time - six brothers and sisters of MamaDuck and their assorted offspring (including ours) who are scattered all over the place - two families in France, one in Spain, one in Holland and the rest in England, as well as two of the Daddy-In-Law's brothers and his sister, and various of their offspring. I think it's safe to say that a grand time was had by all.
The next day MamaDuck had to head off back to Liverpool to catch a flight back to Madrid (she'd booked the whole of September off ages ago, and was not able to change it), I headed to Doncaster, and Offspring returned to London.
I had a few days in Doncaster with my Dad and younger sister. I seem to have committed myself to attending Sis's 50th birthday next February, and also the wedding of her eldest daughter in June. I drank lots of splendid beer, consumed a fair amount of traditional British food, and watched far more Jeremy Kyle than is good for me (more than a minute, really). I caught up with a few friends in the village, and then left for London.
Offspring has moved to a new flat since last summer, and so I found myself lurking around deepest Peckham. It's not the most salubrious of neighbourhoods, but down the road is East Dulwich and Lordship Lane. Offspring had to work the evening on the day I arrived, but he had the next day off. One of his flatmates is doing a temporary job at the Thames Barrier, and I got the idea that it would be an interesting place to visit, and maybe hit Greenwich on the way back. We got to Greenwich OK, but as far as London Transport is concerned, the Thames Barrier is more or less in France and it would take us hours to get there. So we scrapped that plan and explored Greenwich instead. We toured the Maritime Museum and then climbed the mountain to the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Very interesting it was.
I never knew that Greenwich had a mini-London Eye.
|A bit of bureaucratic insanity on a side street in Greenwich: do you think the itinerant ice-cream sellers have any idea what this means?|
On the weekend there was a picnic in the park, followed by a wine tasting/ summer staff party/Offspring's leaving do thrown by the wine shop/bar where he works (I should mention at this point that he is leaving mid-September to start a degree at Leeds Uni). Jolly splendid, it was, and of course we didn't get to bed until 6 a.m.
A few days later I caught a coach to Warwick, to visit some very good buddies who used to live in Dubai. I was astonished to be told that they left the Sandlands seven years ago! We had a pleasant couple of days, including trips in the pouring rain to Stratford-on-Avon and Leamington, followed by learning the news of the appalling plane crash at Barajas.
And finally, back to Liverpool. I love Liverpool: I worked there for three years, met MamaDuck there, got married there. And when we left in the late eighties, it looked very much as though the place was being allowed to die. But, you get knocked down, and you get up again. There is tons of new development going on, and it's a real pleasure to visit. This year, Liverpool is European Capital of Culture.
My real reason for going this time, though, was that the youngest son of my very good buddies there (who was three when I first met him) was to be wed that weekend. The venue was a castle in Cheshire, and when I woke on the Saturday morning, for the first time in a fortnight, the sun was shining! It was a sensational day.
The next day I mooched around central Liverpool: the Mathew Street Festival was on. Mathew Street is the location of The Cavern, made famous by those Beatle boys. None of the Festival happens there now, but there were five stages set up around the area. On one of which I saw Chas and Dave (definitely not Scousers). I didn't stay too long because the rain got too much.
And the next day was an uneventful flight back to Madrid.
So that was my holiday: three or four never-to-be-repeated events, re-unions with fambly and friends, mostly horrible weather, a lot of bemusement at what has happened to the country I was born and raised in, relief at not needing the stab vest that I hadn't bought, and a fair amount of boredom.
August finished yesterday, which means that all those Madrileños who ran away for the hottest month are now back at work. I must admit, I was struggling to get back into the swing of things last week.
It's also the first day of Ramadan - thanks to Buj Al Arab for the reminder. Buj asks what Ramadan is like here in Spain. To be honest, it's like nothing at all. I have not seen a mosque or heard a call to prayer since I've been here. There are Muslims, obviously, but I don't know where they live and they seem to maintain a very low profile.
Anyway: ¡Ramadan Kareem!
Sunday, 31 August 2008
I've been back from my holiday for about a week, and have not felt inspired to write any new blog posts. But now it's Sunday, and I always start to feel edgy if I have not blogged for a week. So, there's three things I could write about:
1) What I did on my holidays.
2) My recipe for making fantastic bread.
3) A review of the movie 'Mamma Mia'.
Let me know which one you want.
Monday, 25 August 2008
I got back to my flat at 5pm today. Eeh, but it's warm!
I was a bit startled at the airport - there were at least 100 identically-dressed people waiting at a carousel for their bags. Closer inspection revealed that the flight was from Beijing, and this was the Spanish Olympic team.
So the hordes of TV cameras outside weren't there for me after all.
Wednesday, 20 August 2008
I am at a friend's house that has a wi-fi connection, so I can finally do a post without the pressure you get in internet cafes. The main reason for this trip was to throw a surprise birthday party for the Daddy-in-Law's 80th birthday. That went off surprisingly well, with his numerous kids and their other halves and kiddiewinkles all gathered together from various outposts in Europe. Most of the auld guy's siblings were there too.
After the weekend in Scunthorpe, MamaDuck returned to Madrid, Offspring returned to London, and I went to visit my dad and sister in Doncaster for four days. Then I tootled down to London for a week, which included a wine-tasting and raucous party thrown by the wine shop/bar that Offspring works for (and getting to bed at 6am).
Now I'm in Warwick, visiting some mates who escaped from Dubai 7 years ago (it only seems like 2 or 3), and tomorrow I'm travelling up to Liverpool. On Saturday I'm attending a wedding at a castle in North Wales, and on Monday I'm flying back to Madrid.
I'll be ready for a rest, I reckon. But I'm enjoying the beer and the terrible weather, so no complaining.
Tuesday, 12 August 2008
Friday, 1 August 2008
Spain traditionally closes down for the month of August. This makes a lot of sense because it's too bloody hot to do anything like work. I had forgotten today was the start of August, so I was a bit surprised to see a different watchman sitting in the box (the regular one now being on holiday), and even more surprised to see the biggest bar on the square closed. Walking around the barrio, it seems about half the bars and shops are closed.
I would not wish to be trying to drive out of any major Spanish city today.
Oh, and tomorrow is the first anniversary of our arrival in Madrid. A cake might be in order.
Monday, 28 July 2008
There was a time when getting a site indexed on a major search engine was seriously hard - I used to derive a major part of my income from doing just that. At the time, the major search engine was Yahoo!, and their largely hand-edited directory was drowning under the number of submissions. After a while they thought they could monetize the operation by charging for 'express' listing. But you were still looking at an index that was only updated every one or two months. Then Google came along and changed everything. It indexes pretty much everything that gets published on the web. And pretty quickly too.
The reason I'm writing this wibble is that I just Googled 'bread yeast Madrid', and was seriously, I mean seriously surprised to find a link to my previous story in the number one position. I only posted it half an hour ago! This is just utterly, gob-smackingly amazing.
A couple of years ago, on my Dubai blog, I had a try at 'Google-bombing': this is a game where you try to get top rankings for a particular phrase. I chose the phrase 'disingenuous tosh.' Actually, it chose itself, given some of the garbage spouted by UAE government officials. But guess what: it's still number one!
We have a friend who is seriously into cooking. We had a beer with her yesterday, and she asked me if I'd received the 'pie-making machine' yet. I told her I had, and she was drooling over the steak-and-kidney and chicken-and-ham pies that I've made so far.
'What about bread?' she asked, 'You do make your own bread, don't you? And not in a bread-making machine?'
I told her, I have been known to make my own bread, I'm not impressed by bread-making machines. I like to knead the dough by hand, stick all kinds of seedy, grainy things in it, and generally produce a fairly interesting loaf. We then had a long chat about the general crapness of Spanish bread: baguettes and chapattas that are good while they are fresh, but go rock-hard within about two hours; 'pan de molde' or 'Bimbo' that tastes of nothing and goes moudly in a couple of days; etcetera.
And then she explained her theory. She highly doubts that Spanish bakers use yeast to make their dough rise. Baking powder is suspected. Now this might be true, because both yeast and baking powder are apparently known as 'levadura' in Spanish. And while I've seen plenty of baking powder in the shops, I've never actually seen yeast.
The hunt is on.
Wednesday, 23 July 2008
Long-time followers of this blog and my Dubai blog, will be aware of my fondness for 'proper' steak and kidney pies, big hunks of roasted meat and incidentals like Yorkshire Pudding and roast potatoes.
You need an oven for all of these things, and our mini-kitchen does not include one. We used to have a combi-oven (microwave, grill and convection oven) that we shipped from Dubai at great expense. But it stopped working about a week before Christmas. I couldn't figure out any way to get it fixed, and so everything I've cooked since then has been boiled or fried.
I've had a couple of attempts to get a steak and kidney pie in Madrid: once at the only 'British' chip shop in central Madrid, where they had microwaved it (this is an extremely bad thing), and once in an Irish bar where it was actually described as a 'meat pie' (unnamed meat, of course, and I still haven't worked out what animal it came from). The unnamed meat pie came without pastry. It was just some cubes of unpleasant-tasting meat, covered in mashed potato, mushy peas and gravy. Crap. Absolute crap.
I have searched in vain for a combi-oven in Madrid. There are plenty of microwaves kicking around, many of them with grills. And lots of DeLonghi Italian free-standing ovens. But no combis. Actually I did find some combis in an El Corte Inglés a few weeks ago, but the cheapest was 325 Euros.
But there is Good News! Yesterday, I took delivery of a brand-new combi oven, courtesy of UK Shopping in Spain. They will buy/order stuff from shops in the UK and arrange for it to be shipped to Spain. So the combi that I chose came from Curry's. The cost of the oven and the shipping was about 180 Euros, and it took about 11 days to get here. Once I'd unpacked it to check that nothing was broken, I rushed off to the shops to get some steak, and some kidneys, and some frozen pastry. Unfortunately we had a vegetarian buddy coming round for dinner last night, so the pie was delayed. But I did use the new toy to grill some goat cheese with cinnamon and brown sugar, and that was grand.
Monday, 21 July 2008
I'm talking about media, by which I mean devices to store music and videos on: wax cylinders, vinyl discs, tapes, CD/DVDs, memory chips, etc.
A week ago, our upstairs neighbour loaned me a DVD ('I'm Alan Partridge', if you must know: this character is one that we completely missed during our 12-year sojourn in Dubai, although I had read a few things about him). I slapped it into the portable DVD player with 7" screen that I had bought for MamaDuck last Christmas. Wouldn't play. Tried a few other DVDs that we know have previously worked on this machine. Nada. It's buggered. But still under warranty if we can find the correct bits of paper. Never mind, our laptops can play DVDs. Well, mine just read the DVD, said it was region 2 & 4 (Spain is in region 2 and that is what my drive is set for), and then refused to play it: no reason given. Never mind, we'll try MamaDuck's lappie. The DVD player software supplied with it was a 3-month trial, and it had just expired. Fecking hell.
I was in FNAC a few days later, and had a look at DVD players. The cheapest is about 60 Euros, but I was kind of interested in some combi-jobbies that are VHS video players and DVD players in the same box. But at around 300 Euros, they're not in this month's budget.
DVD regionalisation, by the way, really, really, really, gets on my tits. If ever there was an utterly pointless bit of technology, this is it. Hollywood moguls, pay attention.
I've been thinking recently about the increasing commoditisation of recorded stuff like music and video. Time was, when an LP (Long-Playing record) was a thing to treasure. Certainly, they cost a lot of money, but they came in a 12-inch sleeve, and the artwork of these sleeves was something to admire. In some cases they became very elaborate: gatefolds, posters, lyric books and photo albums were all part of the package. And then came Musicassettes (TM: Crap Names, Inc). These were very much smaller, and the attempts of the sleeve designers to include some of the excitement of LP sleeves were all a bit meaningless in the smaller format available. Then we got CDs: a bit bigger than a cassette, but still, the Golden Age of album art was clearly long gone. Now we have MP3 files. There's no wrapper whatsoever. And so the music is just a few gazillion binary blips on a bit of silicon. The concept of the album (or even the concept of the concept album) has lost its meaning. When you can download individual tracks, you lose the artistry involved in the assembly of an album with its peaks and troughs, excitements and relaxations. It's like just having the good bits from a symphony: you miss the foreplay that makes the crescendos so much more powerful.
I got hugely nostalgic a few weekends ago when we went to Plaza de Dos de Mayo. There were stalls selling second-hand LPs. I saw Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, an early Police Album, a lot of Rolling Stones and even something by String Driven Thing (sunk without trace, but I used to like them). Problem is, we no longer have a turntable, but I know they can be got.
Last night MamaDuck put a cassette on the machine. It stopped after about 20 minutes, and I thought 'I'm sure there's more songs in that album.' Then I remembered: you have to turn it over.
Also over the weekend, MamaDuck was having a good old clearout of the trastero (our store-room, under the stairs on the landing). You'll never guess what she found, so I'll just save a bit of time and tell you. She found a VCR and a DVD player. I guess I had erased these from my memory because we had no TV. But now we do have a TV, and so we can use them again.
At least, we could use them if we had the right cables. The VCR is fine, but the DVD is a problem. I can get the video to work, using an S-VIDEO cable, but the audio used to be pumped out through a 5:1 bunch of speakers that we donated to a starving Pakistani trader back in Dubai. There's no possibility of installing 6 speakers in our micro-piso, and so I've just been down to Calle de Barquillo, which is Madrid's answer to London's Tottenham Court Road. I came back confused. Most of the stuff I saw was seriously expensive: 35 Euros and upwards, so I wanted to be totally sure that I was buying the right thing.
It looks like my options are:
Fibre-optic audio cable - but I've only seen these bundled with S-VIDEO cables.
5:1 to SCART. I think this is what I'll go for. I'm going out now, first of all to check a couple of Chino's, because they sometimes have the most esoteric stuff for one or two Euros. Failing that, it'll be the gold-plated stuff from Barquillo.
Wish me luck.
Bought a 4 RCA : 1 SCART for 2.50 Euros. Doesn't work. Off to Barquillo now.
Bought a fibre-optic audio cable for 11.50 Euros. Fits into the back of the DVD player. Doesn't fit in the TV. Bollox.
Sunday, 20 July 2008
Throughout July and August, Madrid organises a marvellous thing called 'Veranos en la Villa'. It's a series of (mostly) free concerts at various venues around town. We caught one of them last year when we had just arrived: a concert by Daniel Barenboim and orchestra.
Last Sunday, we went to Retiro Park, and stumbled upon a concert by the Banda Sinfonia Municipal de Madrid. The program was entirely Spanish, the second half entirely pasos dobles to which quite a few people were dancing on the gravel. The band are performing every Sunday at midday through the summer, so today we got there early enough to be able to get one of the thousand or so folding chairs that the band provides.
Today's program included Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, but no cannons. 'Banda' is possibly a misleading term - it makes them sound like a Yorkshire pit brass band, but actually it's very nearly a full symphony orchestra, lacking only the violins. These guys can play, and the atmosphere at these gigs is just tremendous.
So if you want to find us on any Sunday afternoon, we'll be in the park, near the bandstand.
Mamaduck has a little theory about why people keep trying to rob us in Madrid. It's because I look a bit like Richard Branson, who is known the world over as not being short of a bob or two. But the idea that he might be found travelling on Madrid's wonderful Metro, or anywhere else without a huge entourage, stretches the imagination somewhat. Actually, maybe I can sue Branson and get him to stop lookin like me...
We have not been succesfully robbed for a few months now. We can spot the potential perps and see them off, or at least get a long way away from them.
But today I had an entirely new almost-robbery experience. I was at a cash-machine in Lavapiés. Lavapiés is not an area that I feel entirely comfortable in: it's populated by lots of Africans and Asians (you racist bastard Keefie), and while I love it to bits, I do seem to stand out as a rich white man (I wish). So I'm always very careful when I'm in that area.
I needed to get some cash, so I popped my bank card into the machine, gave it my PIN, and was just about to tell it that I wanted forty Euros, when a seemingly drug-crazed kid appeared out of nowhere, hit the screen and then retreated a bit. I immediately hit the 'cancel' button and retrieved my card. Because of the stupid location of this machine, in direct sunlight with no kind of shade, it was extremely difficult to see what the screen was saying, but I knew from the vibration of my phone in my pocket that a transaction of more than fifty Euros had been attempted.
I needed to check what the machine was saying, but this kid kept getting in the way. I pushed him away, I told him to fuck off, I even kicked his arse. Sadly I was only wearing espadrilles, so it barely registered with him. And then a bloke came up and whacked him one in the face. The kid staggered away. MamDuck returned from whatever it was she had been doing. She'd noticed the kid, and registered that he seemed to be hurting.
I checked the message on my phone. It said I had just withdrawn 300 Euros.
I put my card back into the machine and asked it for a mini-statement. The balance was 300 Euros less than it should have been.
I was shaking like a shaky-thing. No idea what to do. In the end we just got on the Metro and left Lavapiés. This was such a weird situation: I had been attacked, and possibly robbed. I didn't know whether the guy who smacked the kid had been his accomplice, or whether there had been a third party who had taken the money while I was distracted. I didn't even know whether the money had actually been dispensed. I thought it hadn't, but when you are in situations like this, it's very hard to tell what's going on.
Anyhoo, you'll be pleased to know, I've just checked my account on the Interweb. I still have that 300 Euros.
And I still lurve Madrid.
Friday, 18 July 2008
Our gardening flurry is almost at an end for the summer. The three tomato plants each produced one tomato: one of them blighted in some way. The pepper plant/bush/tree produced six little pimientos. The rosemary and mint are flourishing, and we have a stack of cilantro (coriander) seeds. The parsley's a bit weak, and the basil is devastated - because we keep ripping its leaves off and eating them. Lemon tree: nada. The allium that I grew from a sprouted onion looks promising.
It's not going to keep us fed for very long, but boy does it look good!
In the UK, most 'corner shops' are owned by Indians or Pakistanis. There was great resentment when these hard-working and enterprising immigrants arrived in the UK, bought these properties and worked their grollies off in them for at least twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week. 'Corner shop' is a catch-all phrase for a small grocery/general store. The idea that these immigrants were 'taking our jobs' is complete rubbish, of course. Very few Brits were prepared to put in the hours that the Asians did.
In Spain, the corner shop is called an 'alimentacion' - basically, a food shop. But because they are mostly owned and run by Chinese, they are also known as 'chino's'. I'm in no position to judge how the Spanish feel about these places: all I know is that they can usually sell you an onion (or pretty much anything else) at midnight. It will be a pricey onion, mind, because a) they don't have the buying power of big supermarket chains, and b) they understand supply and demand.
The reason I'm wibbling on about this now is that I've just witnessed a fairly unpleasant incident at my local Dia supermarket. Dia is owned by Carrefour, and their prices are similar to Lidl or Aldi. It's a no-frills establishment. Ever since I've been shopping at Dia (I avoid their meat, and they don't do fish), I've noticed that whenever I was in a hurry to get in and get out (which is nearly always: I can't stand the place), there would be one or two Chinese with one or two trolleys stacked to the gunwhales with stuff. Not the kind of shopping you do for a household: more the kind you do for your corner shop - 48 x 2 litre bottles of Coca Cola, 6 cases of Heineken, etc. Basically, they were using the place as a wholesaler. This might be ok, but because it's a budget operation, Dia usually doesn't have the staff to operate more than one checkout at a time, and so everyone gets held up while these vast quantities of stuff are being processed.
So, today I was in the usual quite long queue and I could hear shouting at the front of the store. As I got closer to the checkout, I could see a Chinese woman with a trolley being denied entrance by the quite-well-built manageress. I don't know if this signals a new policy by Dia, or if the manageress was just feeling vindictive against this particular woman. But neither of them was giving any ground, and when my modest pile of shopping was halfway through being checked-out, the cashier suddenly locked up the till and she and half of the queue rushed to surround the manageress and the Chinese woman, because they were on the edge of beating each other to a pulp (that's a lie, actually, the Chinese woman would have been slaughtered). Things calmed down a little, the cashier came back, I paid for my stuff, and then had to walk past the combatants. The Chinese woman had started up her yelling once more, and as I passed her I invited her to 'fuck off', and to 'shut the fuck up'. She had no idea what I was saying, but the manageress did.
I might be up for a free bar of chocolate next time I go there.
Sunday, 13 July 2008
We were wandering around Malasaña yesterday, and happened upon an Arabic restaurant round the corner from Plaze de Dos de Mayo. It looked very pleasant, so in we went. The lack of customers should have sent us a signal - this was three o'clock on a sunny Saturday afternoon, so the place should have been busy.
We ordered hummus, tabbouleh, lamb tagine and lamb couscous. Waiting for the food to arrive, I began to feel a bit nostalgic for our Middle East days. But the food soon cured that. The hummus had cumin in it, but it was ok. The tabbouleh was 80% burghul with a few flecks of parsley and mint, the reverse of the quantities that I'm used to. Never mind, I thought, maybe that's how they do it in Morocco. I imagined they'd definitely be able to do an authentic tagine - a rich, spicy, zingy, meaty stew.
So I almost fell off my chair when the waiter removed the conical ceramic lid from my dish. There was a small lamb shank, surrounded by chips. No vegetables, no sauce, no spice and definitely no zing. It was just unbelievable.
However, it's inspired me to go hunting for the ingredients of hummus and tabbouleh so I can make my own - in Dubai I would usually have a bowl of one or the other in the fridge: it's good healthy stuff, has a reasonable fridge-life, and goes with more or less anything.
Friday, 11 July 2008
It's four or five days since Gay Pride week finished, and my head is nearly back to nomal. Our property renting buddy has told us that we could rent out our apartment for the week for an insane amount of money. I think we'll take him up on it if we are still here next year: it'll be worth the hassle of removing our personal stuff just to get some peace and quiet.
Sunday, 6 July 2008
Today is the last day of the Gay Pride Festival, and I must say I'll be very glad when the last gut-wrenching, window-rattling, bleeding-ear-inducing synthesised drumbeat has been played. The first two nights were OK - we had interesting live acts, followed by tedious 'dance' 'music' until 1.30am. The last two nights have been solid DJs from 8pm until 3am. Call me a grumpy old git, but I prefer the days when all a DJ had to do was play records that the audience liked, and remember to play a smoochy one at the end. Simple, no? Now they blast out a bass & drum track and mix snippets of songs over that. I'm sure if I was twenty years younger and out of my head on some exotic cocktail of booze and pills, I might think it was something marvellous. But, sorry, I'm not and I don't.
We did watch the big parade yesterday. We were positioned right at the start, near Puerta de Alcala, and it took two and a half hours for all the floats to pass. And would you believe that neither MamaDuck nor I took a camera? Well, we didn't. Sorry.
Thursday, 3 July 2008
Terry Bull's gay brother has come to stay. Looks very fetching in his glossy rainbow mosaic, Village People hat and boots, and big brass earring, don't you think? Only trouble is, we don't know what his name is. Any ideas?
Wednesday, 2 July 2008
You may or may not be aware that we live on Plaza de Chueca, and that Chueca is the gay district of Madrid. Once a year it goes crazier than usual and hosts Gay Pride Week. It started this afternoon.
In the Plaza itself there is a monster stage that takes up about a quarter of the available space. There's been a couple of acts on so far - a couple of drag queens and a rock/punk band. As you can see from the pics below, this is quite a popular event. There are other stages set up around the barrio, and we are planning to venture out shortly for a looksee. We may not be able to get back into our building before midnight: wish us luck!
UPDATE: The live entertainment finished at about 10pm, and a DJ appeared. He slapped up the volume and did his thing until 0030. The crowd loved it, but this Boring Old Fart decided to preserve what's left of his eardrums and went to a pub in another barrio. Ho hum.
I wrote a post a few weeks ago called 'The Wonderful Telefonica.' We all make mistakes. Despite what I had been promised, no engineer turned up to test the line. So the phone still didn't work, but the Internet did.
Until yesterday afternoon, when a computer flicked a switch and instantly cut off my livelihood. I cried for a bit, and then called Telefonica. I got an English-speaking lady this time, and she told me that I had two outstanding bills - one from April and one from last month. I don't know why they don't just apply any money I give them to the oldest bill, but they don't. And it took this lady quite a bit of searching to find the unpaid bills.
Anyhoo, she said if I paid the April bill at a Post Office, I'd be re-connected in 4-24 hours. I sobbed some more down the phone, declined to even listen to the sales shpiel for more hyper-expensive Telefonica services, went to the bank, the Post Office and the pub. And then home. I'd just booted up the computer when the phone rang. It was a computer telling me that the service had been restored. This was actually only about one hour after I'd paid the bill, but I'm refusing to admit to being impressed or even grateful.
Tuesday, 1 July 2008
Los Campeones returned to Madrid last night, and of course we had to go to see it. We had no idea what was going to happen, all we knew was that it would be a good idea to be at Plaza de Colón by about 8pm. As it happened, we were there at 7.30, along with a sizeable crowd, a big stage, big video screens and a perfectly adequate sound system.
We were entertained by several bands that we'd never heard of, and an enterprising dude was doing good business painting Spanish flags on peoples' faces - although it did look like he was using acrylic paint, which is a bugger to get off.
The team's plane touched down at 8pm, and after about fifteen minutes they set off on the slowest-ever bus trip from the airport - it took over an hour for them to reach Colón, but everyone was quite pleased when they did. The National Library of Spain sits on a corner of the Plaza, and these security guys on the roof got a pretty good view.
A few minutes before the actual arrival, the Spanish Air Force Aerobatics Team flew over our heads trailing yellow and red smoke.
Then finally, the bus arrived. In the photo below, do you see the yellow blob to the left of the kid in the blue t-shirt? That's the Cup! (Actually it might be Luis Aragones, but it's hard to tell from this distance).
Once again, a bloody fantastic experience: thank you Madrid, thank you Spain!
And I promise you, a complete change of topic tomorrow.
Monday, 30 June 2008
The last time I was in a country that won a major international tournament was 1966 in England. I was 9 years old. Now I'm 50, and Spain have won the Euro 2008 tournament. Amazing, incredible, estupendo. I cannot begin to describe the atmosphere here in Madrid tonight. There have been at least three major firework displays, we wandered around waving our Spanish flags and fans for an hour or so, the square below us is packed with noisy people and I don't think any of them will leave until the Metro opens at 6am.
Fantasic. Just fantastic.
Thursday, 26 June 2008
Oh my Gawd. Spain just beat Russia 3-0 in the semi-final of the EuroCopa. Spain played brilliantly, full of confidence and skill.
I've become aware, as this tournament has gone on, that a lot of Spaniards doubted the ability of their national team to get beyond the group stage. But this time it's different. Oh boy is it different! Spain now face Germany in the final on Sunday. Spain played a brilliant game today, and while I'm not going to predict that they will beat Germany in the final, I certainly think that they can and I hope that they will. Time will tell.
Wednesday, 25 June 2008
There was supposed to be nothing happening in the EuroCopa yesterday and the day before. So MamaDuck and I decided that we would go to the Writerz Groop last night after she finished work. As it turned out, she had an almost total no-show and so her last class was cancelled. I was mooching around town, and had just bought the DVD of 'The Golden Compass'. We tried to see this film around Christmas time, but it was only on at one V.O. cinema, and only for about 2 showings. When we turned up for the second one they'd changed the timing and we'd bloody missed it. Ah well.
Anyhoo, we had some time to kill before the Writerz Groop, so we went into a bar. To our astonishment, there was football on one of the tellies. It was Spain versus Russia, and Spain were winning. But the sound was off, and nobody was paying the slightest bit of attention. We were totally baffled: I was sure this game was supposed to happen on Thursday. We decided to leave at half-time, jump into a taxi and go home to watch the rest of it with the sound turned up.
So, we got home, I set up the telly on the terrace, and furiously zapped the zapper to find the match. Couldn't find it - surely it's not just on satellite channels? And then we checked the Internet. There were no games scheduled for Tuesday night. Spain play Russia on Thursday. Eventually we realised - what we'd seen was a repeat of the group stage match between Russia and Spain - I'd already forgotten that match (very easy to do when you reach my age), and had assumed that only a dimwit would organise a tournament in such a way that the same two teams could play each other twice. Bummer.
Having got the telly all set up, I decided that I would watch The Golden Compass, which is based on the first part of Philip Pullman's brilliant 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. I re-read the trilogy a month ago, and I think this probably spoilt the film for me because the story was fresh in my mind, and so the mangling and omissions in the movie were quite apparent. I'll be generous and say the film was 'a huge disappointment'.
Monday, 23 June 2008
Spain played their Eurocopa quarter-final tonight, against Italy. I was unaware, until a few days ago, that Spain have not beaten Italy since 1920. So there was a bit of a psychological fear factor. The game itself was as boring as hell. Both sides opted for serious defensive tactics, as a result of which there was precious little attacking to deal with. So, no goals at the end of 90 minutes, and none after half an hour extra time. Damn penalties. Happily, Spain won, and I hope that this gives them the confidence to actually get out there and play the football they are capable of.
We went up to Plaza de Colón after the match. This is where fans can watch games on massive screens, and where they celebrate afterwards. Paseo de Recoletos (a main road leading into the Plaza) was jammed with fans and cars draped in Spanish flags, beeping their horns and not expecting to be able to actually go anywhere. The atmosphere was stupendous. And it's still going on at 1.15am. I don't suppose it will end until they all run out of petrol.
Spain's next match is against Russia. I hope the team have finally got the message. 'Yes, we can.'
Friday, 20 June 2008
coriander / cilantro gone to seed
capsicums / peppers
tomatoes (still green)
Thursday, 19 June 2008
Now we have a problem: the account is registered in MamaDuck's name (because she had a local bank account and a job, etc). Since we got our Foreigner's Identity Numbers (NIEs), we've both had to change our bank accounts from 'foreigner' to 'resident'. And this means that Telefonica no longer enjoy the privilege of whipping money out of MamaDuck's account any more, because that account has been closed. We have been trying to inform Telefonica of the new account details for the last few months, but bloody hell, they do not make it easy. Well, actually, they do: if our Spanish was up-to-snuff we could just dial 1004 ('Atencion al Cliente') and get it changed in a matter of minutes.
I know I shouldn't be moaning about this: I very much doubt that British Telecom offer customer support in anything but English. Someone told me that if you dial 1004 and don't respond to any of the numerous call-centre options, you'll eventually be spoken to by a living, breathing person, and you can ask them to put you through to an English-speaking operator. Well, that hasn't happened for the last three days: after a while the machine gets fed up and hangs up on you.
Then I had a brainwave, again. Try the website: there at least I can sit and ponder the questions for as long as it takes for understanding to take place. So, you first of all have to sign up. I got through the first page ok, but stumbled fatally at the second. For security reasons it asks you for the number and amount of your last bill. No problem, got it here, slap it in. 'Wrong', it says. Try it again. Still wrong. I'm almost in tears. All I want to do is give the buggers money and stop them cutting off my Internet. OK, gonna try speaking on the phone now. Wish me luck.
There is a God. Me loins were all girded up for trying it in Spanish. When I got through to an agent, I said, in Spanish 'I'm English and my Spanish is rubbish.'
'Wait one second,' she said, in English.
'You speak English!' I said.
'No, please wait', she said, in English.
And then a guy came on the line. He spoke extremely good English. I gave him the new account details, checked that they had received a cash payment I made through the Post Office a few weeks ago (yes, they had), and wondered why the landline was not reconnected after that payment. He said it wasn't disconnected, it must be a line fault and he'll send an engineer. And, according to their system, we are up-to-date on payments (despite me sitting here looking at a bill for an incredible 128 Euros), and would I like to sign up for cable TV and/or cheap calls to the UK?
I don't think I'll ever understand a Spanish phone bill: I hardly use the landline - we only have it because we need it for the Internet. The bills never actually tell you what you've paid, only what you're being billed for. I almost had a heart attack when I saw the last bill: one international call, to HSBC bank in Dubai. I remember it well. It was me trying to get them to transfer some of my money to my Spanish account. It took the guy 46 minutes and twenty seven seconds to wade through the problem. I have been charged a stupendous €49 for that call. I remember asking him if this was a free call - he said no, but it was a 'special' rate. Damn right. Thieving bastards.
Anyway, good on Telefonica. If I could just have a direct line to that English-speaking dude, life would be a whole lot easier.
Monday, 16 June 2008
I've seen some very entertaining footie, and a lot more goals than you might expect. I've also witnessed some outrageous shirt-pulling, body-hugging, arm-barring, hair-pulling, pushing, shoving and anything else deemed necessary to stop your opponent from reaching the ball. Either all of this kind of stuff is now legal, or I have better eyesight than the match officials. The latter might be true, actually, given that professional quality TV cameras now cost €5.95 for six, and there are probably a dozen cameras filming each match; all with the benefit of slow-motion action replay.
The poor referee and his mates only have four pairs of eyes to rely on.
A couple of days ago I saw a pretty blatant example of this wrestle-ball, but I can't remember which game it was. Two guys were racing for the ball. One of them realised he had no chance of getting it, so he just pushed his opponent over. He got one of those lovely yellow cards for his pains, but surely he should have been sent off?
In the dying minutes of last night's match between CzechRep and Turkey, the Turkish goalie was sent off for doing something very similar. He seemed to be astonished at the punishment. I think it might be time for video evidence to be used during games whenever a questionable situation arises, because the simple fact is that match officials simply cannot see everything that happens. The mantra that 'the referee's decision is final, even if it's wrong', is outmoded and unfair in this technological age.
My 2 centimos' worth.
I forgot to mention the bizarre booking of a non-participating player last night (either a substitute or a player who had been taken off). But 10 minutes ago, I watched in disbelief as the managers of Austria and Germany were dismissed from the sidelines and had to go sit in the stands! Unreal. And I have no idea why that happened.
Thursday, 12 June 2008
Also, I had an actual written communication from Google today. It's part of the verification process for their AdSense program, so that if my clickthru's ever amount to $100, they can transfer the cash to my bank. Now, I haven't really taken much notice of my AdSense account before. I just put a couple of ads on there to annoy Dubai Billy. But amazingly, there have been some clicks, and Google actually owe me a few dollars. So, I thought I'd experiment with sticking a few more advertising units on, to see if it makes any difference. I'm not expecting this to make me a millionaire, but I do spend a stack of time writing these posts, and it would be nice to get some payback for it.
Tuesday, 10 June 2008
I discovered a few hours before the match that it was being shown for free in Plaza de Colon - a ten-minute walk from here. But I figured it might be a bit busy, so I gave it a miss. I set the telly up on a table on the terrace, and was able to see and hear it, with the added bonus of the roars from Colon whenever things got exciting. It was almost like being in a stadium - apparently there were about a quarter of a million people in Pl de Colon. It was an exciting game, and Spain beat Russia 4-1. A sensational start. Can we win it?
Sunday, 8 June 2008
Aranjuez has always been on our hit-list of places to visit, but we were given a bit of impetus by a friend of MamaDuck's who was going there today specifically to watch a concert. We took the Cercanias (suburban train), which leaves Atocha every half-hour, and takes forty minutes. We eventually met up with our friend, had a nice lunch, wandered around the Palace Gardens, had a drink in the sunshine, got to the Palace too late to do the tour, had another drink, and then tootled off to the station to get the train home at about 7pm.
I can't believe the last picture!
Friday, 6 June 2008
I had an email from Tim Newman last week. He left Dubai several months before I did, and moved to Sakhalin Island, at the extreme east of Russia. I thought it unlikely that I would ever meet him again, but then I got an email from him. He was coming to Madrid, of all places, for a business trip. Drinkies? You bet.
You can read about Tim's impressions of Madrid here.
Wednesday, 4 June 2008
In case you don't know, the Prado is one of the world's top art galleries. MamaDuck and I had always had it on our list of things to do, but never actually got round to it. We would walk past it on Sundays (when entrance is free to everybody) and be discouraged by the long queues.
As the teaching year winds down, MamaDuck found that she had a long morning free today. And she suggested that we spend it at the Prado. We would have to pay €6 each to get in. That's a bit less than the price of a cinema ticket. So we went for it. The seemingly long queues to buy tickets and to enter the galleries turned out to be clumps of Japanese tourists waiting for their guides; not part of any queue at all. So getting in was actually quite painless.
MamaDuck and I have quite different ways of looking at art; she likes to spend about three centuries looking at every single painting, while I just whizz past each one. She had a plan for this visit; she wanted to focus on Velazquez. So we found the main Velazquez room, and I did it in about five minutes. Not because I don't admire his work - he was a superb painter. But he was hampered by being Court Painter to the ugliest king (and rellies and offspring) who ever lived. I see enough ugliness in real life, and I really don't want my day spoilt by looking at more.
The Prado has a bunch of Rubens, some Van Dycks, some Brueghells, and a ton of stuff by dudes I'd never heard of. It also has a lot of El Grecos, which I did not care for at all. So, we spent an enjoyable couple hours, exclusively on the upper floor. Next time we'll do the ground floor.