Monday, 30 June 2008

Si Hicimos [Yes, We Did]

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

Podemos - You Bet Your Ass

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

A Most Confusing Evening

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

Podemos, Si [We Can, Yes]

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

Everything in the Garden is Lovely

It seems that Summer has finally arrived. We've had a couple of days of unbroken sunshine, and the peak temperature today was forecast to be 34° C. I likes it. Regular readers will know that MamaDuck has been investing heavily in plants over the last three or four weekends. Here's a few photos of the results.


coriander / cilantro gone to seed

capsicums / peppers

tomatoes (still green)

Thursday, 19 June 2008

The Wonderful Telefonica

OK, whingeing Brit time. I wrote about our earlier trials and tribulations in getting a landline and Internet installed: purely down to our lack of linguistic ability, of course - once they actually had the application, the installation swiftly followed (probably because we are only two blocks away from Telefonica's HQ - I believe that in some rural areas you have to apply in your previous life in order to get anything installed before you die).

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

EuroWrestling 2008

I've never watched so much football in my life! I've seen at least one, sometimes two games each night for the last week, and this will continue until the end of June (well, ok, once we're done with the group stage, there's only one game per day).

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

Another New Blog Toy

I just got me a tag cloud in my sidebar. 'What the divvil's that?' you're wondering. Well, it's a collection of words culled from the labels on my posts. So if you just want to see the posts labelled with 'food', say, you click the food link in the cloud, and it'll get those posts for you. Magic, yes? No, programming. You can get the code for your own blog from here, but if you don't know your HTML from your CSS, I'd advise extreme caution!

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

Si, Podemos [Yes, We Can]

I'm thrilled to bits that Barack Obama will be the Democratic candidate in the next US Presidential election, with his slogan 'yes, we can'. This post isn't about that, though, it's about footie. I was somewhat disgusted that England failed to qualify for Euro 2008 last summer, but now I'm here in Madrid. It's a no-brainer. I'll support Portugal Spain. I've watched two games in the last two days, but today was The Big One. Spain's first game in the tournament, against Russia. I was amazed to discover that this tournament is being shown free-to-air on Cuatro. I can get that on my new telly. Brilliant! I don't know if this EuroCopa has a theme song, but the Cuatro coverage has this tag-line: 'podemos' (we can). I lurve it.

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?

Si. Podemos.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Orange Juice

If you've ever seen the British film 'Brassed Off', you'll have seen and heard a Yorkshire brass band performing 't'Concerto d'Orange Juice'. It's actually the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquín Rodrigo, and it's one of my absolute favourite pieces of music. As it happens, Aranjuez is a pretty little town about 50 km south of Madrid. It is home to a Royal Palace with associated formal gardens and several other places of interest. The area is known for its production of strawberries and asparagus. Each Saturday and Sunday during the summer, a restored steam train makes the trip from Madrid Atocha to Aranjuez with volunteers in period dress handing out strawberries. It's called El Tren de las Freses (it used to be how the farmers of Aranjuez got their goods to market in Madrid), and we tried quite hard to get on it. Sadly, it was full, so I think you may need to book more than a day in advance.

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

New Blog Toy

Blogger released its long-awaited Blog List feature yesterday. This super-cool toy uses RSS feeds to determine when a blog was last updated, and gives you the option of displaying your list in the order of most-recently-updated. Brilliant!

Surprise Visit

One of the things I love about blogging is the way that the people who write your favourite blogs can become your friends, either electronically or actually in the flesh. I still read a lot of blogs by people who are, or used to be in Dubai, and it's a great way to stay in touch.

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

The Prado, At Last!

A few days ago, we passed our ten-month anniversary of being in Madrid. And we had lunch with two of MamaDuck's colleagues, one of whom is definitely leaving, and the other one is thinking about it. We were talking about the things we'd all done in Madrid, and the things that we hadn't. One of the things that none of us had done was to visit the Prado.

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.