Woohoo! It was bloody cold yesterday, and the roads around us were gritted around 10pm, so I wasn't entirely surprised to wake up to see an inch or so of snow sitting on the ground. I rushed down to the little park at the end of the main road to get some piccies.
And when I got home, the flat had been invaded by hornéd Vikings (well, just the one, and she was quite cute).
This is gonna be a rant about architecture and fake bricks. Sorry.
When we moved into Plaza de Chueca, Madrid a couple of years ago, there was a fenced-off hole in the ground directly opposite the entrance to the Plaza, on Calle Augusto Figueroa. A sign announced it to be the site of the new Mercado de San Antón (I have no idea if there had previously been a market on the site, and if there had been, what happened to it). While the Barceló market was only a few blocks away, we awaited developments with interest. The site appeared to be dormant for about eighteen months, when suddenly it sprang to life, in November 2008. The grotty graffiti- and fly-poster-covered fence was removed and replaced with a tall and shiny corrugated aluminium barrier (and a week later it too was bespattered by graffiti and fly-posters). Site huts were installed, followed a few days later by a tower crane that moved so much in the wind we were convinced it would not survive the construction process.
And a few days later, up went the sign with an 'artists impression' of what it would look like.
Oh. My. Giddy. Aunt.
What the fuck is that? It looks like the very worst of British municipal 'architecture' from the seventies - and I should know, I grew up in the town that invented it. I stared at the sign in disbelief, trying to analyse what this picture is telling me. Okay, Keefie, take a deep breath. Right. It looks like a two-storey monolithic podium. At the ground level, it's clad in black stuff: can't tell what it is. There don't seem to be any openings like doors or windows in it on the main street elevation. Above that, the first storey seems to be clad in pinky-red tiles or brick slips*, arranged vertically. Looks like the top floor splits into two chunks with a gap in the middle suggesting a light-well or atrium. And this level is clad in golden tile or brick.
I rush home to get my camera: I have to document this. It must be a mistake. The Municipality has held a design competition, and this was the losing entry but a junior clerk was given the job of ordering the sign and supplied the wrong image. Hohoho, how they will laugh when they realise the mistake.
After a lengthy delay while the contractors built two levels of underground parking, the concrete superstructure began to emerge. Oh. My. God. It wasn't a mistake, they were actually building the shite in the picture. At this point we felt obliged to move a long way away.
A few weeks ago, I was showing our visitors around central Madrid, and we went into Chueca. The building is very well advanced: only a few weeks from completion, I guess. It's far, far worse than the 'artists impression'.
Oh, man, this is just awful. My pictures probably don't do it justice, but you have vast expanses of one batch of brick slips, interspersed with a different batch that should be the same colour, but is different enough to make it look like the cock-up it is. And because the 'architect' has designed this abomination with no surface relief whatsoever, your eyes are drawn to the errors. The corners are awful: there's no pretence that this is real brickwork (because it very obviously isn't) - maybe the 'architect' thought he was making some kind of ironic post-modern joke, because if you were actually building this thing in brick it would fall down: the brick slips cladding the first floor are stuck onto the concrete as if they were tiles (which they are, of course): around the corner they are stuck on in a stretcher bond pattern. It's just too awful for words.
And look, look! Down that little street, how this blank, ugly facade says 'fuck you, hombre' to the delicately detailed buildings around it.
Well, you know, 'fuck you' can sometimes work extremely well in historic urban contexts. But the building doing the fucking had better be good enough (go to St Mary Axe in London and see how Number 30 just completely ignores its context, but you don't actually care because that is one helluva gorgeous building).
So, early next year this hideous affront to the fine-grained architecture of Chueca will open. Graffiti artists will abseil from the roof and decorate it. I might be one of them.
*Brick slips - just like normal bricks - same material, same texture - but only a centimetre thick: used when you want to convey the impression of bricks in an unsuitably bricky context.
Say what? Meh-hi-yo-nes. Mussels. I've fallen in love with them again. When we had our visitors a few weeks ago, I made a paella, and bought fresh mussels and langostinos from Mercadona (a supermarket near us: not quite near enough to visit every day, but well worth a trip for special things). I was amazed, nay, gob-smacked, at the prices of their seafood. And yes, I know I should have gone to the Mercado, but we were also after other stuff that the market doesn't have. Get this. One kilo of mussels for €1.80. Insane or what? Admittedly, they are not premium quality mussels: there'll be at least six stiffs in your bag, and the remainder will have beards like Rip Van Winkle and the shells will have more barnacles and fossilised pigeon shit than the Titanic. But inside they are fat, juicy, sea-flavoured lumps of yum (except for the wobbly shiny green bit, and I try not to think about what that actually is).
So, apart from sticking them in a paella, what can you do with mussels? I just lurve Moules Mariniere. Okay, it's French, but it's dead easy to make and packed with nutrition (no fat, no carbs, just a ton of protein).
You want the recipe? Okay, here goes:
All you need (for two people) is a kilo of fresh mussels, maybe half an onion, some chopped parsley and a couple of cloves of garlic. And some white wine. And some EVOO and/or butter.
To prepare the mussels (this is the slightly pain-in-the-arse, time-consuming bit): slap 'em in a bowl or sink full of cold water for at least half an hour. Throw away any that are open or that have cracked shells. Then de-beard them - grab hold of the beard and tug it towards the hinged end of the shell: don't do it the other way, 'cos that will rip the mussel to bits. Scrape off any crud from the shell with a sharp knife, and give them a good old rinse in clear cold water.
Chop your onion up finely and sautė in the butter/oil until a bit transparent. Throw in your minced / crushed / squashed flat and sliced garlic and stir around for a bit. Throw in some white wine - how much? I don't know: enough - maybe a glass or two - you want about a centimetre of liquid in your pan. Plop in the parsley. Turn up the heat, and when the wine is boiling, throw in the mussels. Turn down the heat so it simmers, cover the pan with a lid or sheet of metal foil, and leave it alone for about ten minutes. At this point you can sneak a look: if all the mussels have opened, they're done: if not, maybe give it a few more minutes. Any that refuse to open at all are stiffs: bin them.
When you think they're all cooked, remove the cover from the pan, take the mussels out with a slotted spoon and pop them into a bowl. Turn up the heat to max and let the liquor reduce to about 50% (there are those who advocate adding cream, in which case you'd want the liquor to cool down somewhat, otherwise the cream will curdle - and you'd have to put the cooked mussels into a warm oven, where they'll turn to rubber). When the liquor has reduced, throw the mussels back in, give 'em a stir round and serve.
This a real simple peasant dish: you can serve it with hunks of crunchy baguette, potatoes dauphinoise or chips and mayonnaise. Hell, you could even have a salad with it.
I've been using this MacBook for a bit over a year now. I think it's probably the best thing I ever bought, but the one thing I missed after making the transition from frustrated PC user to almost-evangelical Mac-user was the Google Chrome browser. This had been released a few months before I moved to Mac, and I loved it. No worries, though, a Mac version was in the works, and would be released 'shortly'. I've never done any Mac-specific programming, so I don't know how hard or easy it is. I kept checking with the website to see how they were getting on, but it was mostly Geek to me. I signed up to get an email telling me if they ever managed to complete the task.
Yesterday, I got my email: Chrome for Mac has arrived! Like a maniac, I rushed to download it. Easy-peasy, no problem.
But there is a problem on this machine. It's only ever been able to run Firefox: it has Opera and Safari installed, but they can never manage to connect to any websites. That never bothered me too much, but now I have Chrome, I really want to be able to use it. Intensive scouring of Teh Interwebz failed 2 giv me haz cheezburger. But I Percy-Vered (good ol' Percy, never lets you down), and came across a reference to having proxy servers set up. Oh my Gawdz: I know all about Poxy Servers as part of the amoral morality police in Dubai. Hmm.
So, I managed to track it down: yes indeed, this machine was set up to use the poxy server of its previous owner at his Uni. Goddam. So I deleted the poxy (the power!), and now all my browsers work, including Chrome. Yeehah!
I've been wanting a new phone for quite a while now: quite apart from the lust factor of a shiny new gizmo, my current phone is pretty knackered. Of course, being a geek, I don't just want any old phone, I want a top o' the range number that does all kinds of useless stuff. I want one that's as stylish and funky as the iPhone. In fact, I want an iPhone, but since Tellyfuckingfonica have exclusive rights to that gadget, I won't be getting one.
So, I've been researching the market, and what I want now (actually more than an iPhone), is a handset that runs Google Android, specifically with the HTC 'Touch UI' skin. So that restricts things somewhat. The HTC Magic is exclusive to Vodafone, and I'm with Orange: moving could involve a JazzTel-style debacle. But as I passed the local Orange dealer yesterday, I noticed an HTC Hero in the window: from only €9! I went in to enquire, carefully not building any expectation that I would actually walk out of the shop with a new phone.
The sales assistant said it was only €9 if you were a business or self-employed. My hope-rating increased to 2/10. I am self-employed (autonomo), and I can prove it! So we talked about packages and lock-ins - we're looking at €32/month, minimum 18 months. That's not bad at all. She gave me forms to fill in, and my hope-rating increased to about 5/10.
But the first question slayed me: did I want to keep the same number I had with my previous supplier, or get a new one. I asked where was the option to switch my existing contract with Orange to this one, and keep the same number? There wasn't one, because you can't do that. Hope-rating: 0/10.
But, she said, you can get the phone as an individual, but you'll have to pay something (I already knew from previous research, the 'something' starts at €209). She fiddled about with the computer. It turned out I have some Orange Points, so the 'something' is only €180. That's way too much right now, but maybe when a large outstanding bill gets settled, I'll do it. As an alternative, she offered the HTC Tattoo, which also runs Android, and is very cute. And 'only' €89 with my points. Hope-rating 1/10, I went away and checked out some reviews - they all admire the phone greatly, except for the crap touch-screen (resistive, rather than capacitive) that makes the thing virtually unusable. So I won't be bothering with that, even though I could get it from Vodafone for €29.
Y'know, phone companies really do get on my tits. Sometime soon, HTC or some other bugger will bring out a new phone running on Android. It might be offered exclusively thru Vodafone or someone else. As a new customer to them, I'll get the phone for almost nothing, and Orange will do nothing to stop me - they won't say 'oh, Keefie, don't leave; look, because we value your custom, you can have the HTC Hero for €9 after all'. I don't want to move to a new supplier: I've had no problems with Orange. But now they have the phone I want and won't let me have it for a sensible price.
I know these high-end phones are pricey: they are little computers, after all. In some ways, I think the UAE had it right. There was an open market in unlocked phones. You bought the one you wanted, stuck your SIM card in it, and off you went. The maze of offers, counter-offers, exclusives and value-adds here does my head in. And in this particular instance it hasn't increased my choice at all, in fact it's limited it to about zero.
UPDATE So I thought, why don't I shut down my existing account with Orange, and then open a new one? I popped into the shop and suggested this, and the assistant said she couldn't see why not. So this evening I went yet again, armed with all the required documents. I'm buggered if I know what happened, but eventually she told me it would be €289 for the phone. WTF? What do you have to do to qualify for the advertised €9? She shrugged her shoulders - no idea. Feck. But it looks like there's tons of Android phones coming out in the next few months, so I'll just have to be patient and then take my business elsewhere.
I could get very bitter and twisted in this post: if I do, please forgive me. I lived in Dubai for thirteen years before moving to Spain a couple of years ago. We knew, about eight years ago, that Dubai was committing financial suicide. Nary a month went by without some new and totally barmy mega-project being announced. The Emirate had opened itself up a bit so that foreigners could buy property there, but only in Government-approved developments - principally those being built by Nakheel (Government-owned), Emaar (semi-Govt) and Damac (private and quite probably bankrupt by now). Many of our friends bought houses on some of these developments: a few of them made shitloads of money by speculatively buying and selling. I dare say the rest of them are now sitting on a mountain of negative equity, and praying five times a day to the deity of their choice that they will still have a job in the morning.
There's no get-out, you see. The United Arab Emirates (of which Dubai is a constituent Emirate) doesn't have a proper bankruptcy procedure for individuals or companies. If you default on a loan, the only legal recourse for the lender is to have you thrown in jail until such time as you can pay what you owe. You think I'm joking, don't you? I wish I was - you can even be jailed for issuing a cheque that subsequently bounces (and the country is very much cheque-driven: if you rent a flat for a year, you either have to pay the whole year's rent upfront, or give them three or four post-dated cheques). I know many people whose only way out was to run.
The attitude of Dubai (and, let's be fair, the rest of the Arabian/Persian Gulf region) to non-fulfilment of financial obligations opens up the fascinating possibility of Dubai World being jailed in its entirety for planning to delay a massive bond repayment. Or, at least, you might think, its owners / top management / shareholders would be held responsible. These would mostly turn out to be members of Dubai's Ruling family, the Maktoums, with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum at the pinnacle of that posse.
I was intrigued / fascinated / pissed off throughout my years in the Middle East by the attitude of my paymasters towards putting money in my pocket. The direct employers that I worked for usually had a policy of keeping foreign workers a few months behind with their salaries so they wouldn't run away (I don't know if it ever occurred to them that if they treated their employees decently, they wouldn't want to run away). Running my own business, I rarely had problems getting paid by Western or Asian clients, but Arabs could be hard work and Government agencies were fucking impossible. In the end, I declined any approaches from the Government because I just couldn't afford to finance them.
And now, with a breathtaking display of utterly crap timing (close of business the day before a 10-day Government holiday), Dubai World announces it has no chance of paying the next installment of its bond repayments, and suggests its investors should wait six months. Yeah, right. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi will be picking off Dubai's prized assets for fire-sale prices, and there's still little possibility of Dubai being able to pay for any of the stupid stuff it has left.
Weird title, eh? But for the last four-ish days, that's what I've been (also fairly expert cook and bottle-washer). We've had visitors from England. The lady visitor (we'll call her V) was our very bestest buddy for our first two or three years in Do-Buy, but, as often happens, got screwed by her employer and had to leave in a bit of a hurry. She visited us a couple of years later in Dubai, but that was ten years ago. We haven't seen her since. But she turned up on FaceBook, and we invited her and her boyfriend (let's call him S) of eight years to come visit. So last Thursday they arrived. Damn fine timing, because it was MamaDuck's birthday on Saturday. We've had a wonderful, wonderful time. V & S got MamaDuck some luvverly prezzies, and as a bonus, V demolished the ironing mountain while the Duck was at work. Meanwhile I was busy making Death By Chocolate v2.0.
It looks much better than v1.0, but the flavour was a bit crap because I managed to burn the chocolate while trying to melt it in the microwave. I expect that, just like software and rock albums, version 3.0 will be pretty much perfect.
Today was their final day in Madrid, so we spent the morning in town, having first made the pilgrimage for S to Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. You can see V & S crossing the road in this picture.
When I'm cooking for guests, I'm always careful to ask if there's anything they don't like / just don't eat / are allergic to. No declarations were forthcoming, so it was a bit worrying when V didn't feel too well after eating the steak and mushroom pie that I made on their first evening. The next day we discovered she doesn't do very well with celery. Damn. I had used mirepoix (finely chopped onion, carrot and celery) as a base for the gravy. I made a paella on the second day: fortunately V & S went to the market with me, and V declared that she couldn't eat bell peppers. So that got cooked separately. The next day we were talking about offal, the eating thereof. I discovered that V was no fan of kidneys either, and explained what a stroke of luck it had been that I couldn't find any at the market, otherwise the steak and mushroom pie would have been a steak and kidney pie.
All I know is, I was building a paella. I hadn't managed to buy a red pepper, because the supermarket I went to (yes, I know, I shoulda gone to the market, but it was the middle of the afternoon, so they were siesta-ing) would only sell me a bag of five, and we can't eat that many before they rot. So I bought a jar of pickled peppers.
I was struggling to open this jar when my phone rang. It was the boss telling me her ETA. No problem. I returned to the kitchen. Couldn't find the jar of peppers anywhere. Looked in the bin, all the cupboards, the oven, the fridge. Gone. Abducted by space aliens, more than likely. So I started writing this and then remembered: I'd put it in the freezer, because that sometimes makes things easier to open.
So I've got it now. Still can't get the fucker open though.
Okay, maybe you think it's orange, but the printing on it says 'this bag is green'.
Yes, this Guardian-reading, tree-hugging, eco-minded person now does not leave the house without this thing stuffed in his pocket. And when he gets to Dia, he smirks at their offer of advertising material at 3 centimos apiece. If he goes to Carrefour, they are welcome to keep their undersized, underpowered biodegradable bag-ettes at 5 centimos each.
But now we have a slight problem: we need plastic bags to stick in the kitchen waste bin. So now I occasionally go to Caprabo and stuff my pockets with their free, but ecologically-sound* bags.
*About six months ago they had notices around their shops explaining how they were no longer printing a white background on their bags: this was being done to save white ink and therefore made their bags environmentally friendly**.
**Now they give you credit on their loyalty card every time you don't use their bags***.
***Obviously the next step is to charge for the bloody bags, and then I'll have to buy waste-bin liners. Or just chuck the stuff out the window, like we used to in the olden days.
For fairly easily-guessable reasons, my mobile phone bill didn't get paid this month. It's not a big deal, and I've been trying for the last few days to find out how to pay the outstanding balance. I finally managed to speak to an English-speaking agent at Orange who gave me an account number and told me I could pay it at any Banco Santander branch.
So I went to my friendly (not) local Santander branch, and tried to pay the bill. The teller laughed at me, and pointed to a sign: the one that says utilities and phone bills will only be accepted between the 10th and 20th of the month, Mondays to Thursdays, 0830-1030.
I'm not joking. These people are fecking mental.
UPDATE: THE NEXT DAY Spoke to several people at Orange this morning. You can apparently pay via the post office, but it can take up to 14 days for them to bother to give the money to Orange (are they using PayPal, I wonder?). The only other option is to pay by credit/debit card, or do a transfer from a Spanish bank account. So I slapped some cash into my bank. Then I called Orange: gave them my card details, but they barfed at the 3-digit security code bit. Feck, double-feck, treble-feck. It fecking works for Ryanair and EasyJet! I'm just wondering if they're storing my card details in their database, rather than doing a real-time look-up (the card was replaced about six months ago - same number, but different code on the back). In which case I'm fecked.
Once again, all I'm trying to do is give the bastards money. All they're trying to do is come up with reasons why I can't. Feck, feck, feckity-feck. The modern world will be great when it's finished.
UPDATE A BIT LATER The buggers have my account details on file: why can't they just press a button and get the money? Buggered if I know. Sob.
FINAL UPDATE I called them again this morning, planning to ask for their full bank details so I could do a TT. But before doing that, we had another go at doing it with my debit card, and this time it bally-well-worked. (I suspect yesterday's lady thought it was a credit card). So, the next challenge will be to get some money into my account in time for the next payment in about a week's time.
One of the things MamaDuck got me for my millionth birthday a few days ago*, was a bar of Lindt & Sprungli 90% dark chocolate. I've been consuming dark chocolate with red wine for a few years, ever since my buddy DubaiBilly (now QatarBilly) introduced me to the concept a few years ago. But I've never had 90% chocolate before, and now I know why. The stuff is inedible. It's basically compressed cocoa. MamaDuck tried a bit and agreed with me.
'But all is not lost,' she said, 'you can make a chocolate fudge cake.'
Like hell I can. People who know me are kind enough to say they enjoy my cooking, but I almost never do a dessert, and I've certainly never baked a cake in my life. But I woke up this morning and thought 'how hard can it be?'
I trawled the interwebz a bit for recipes, and thought this one from Nigella Lawson sounded pretty good. One problem: you can't get cocoa powder in Madrid supermarkets - although you can get something called ColaCoa, basically a kiddies choc drink with built-in milk and sugar. But Madrid does have a shop called 'The Things You Miss' in Chamberí which sells nothing but Brit brands - stuff like PG Tips tea, Wall's (Some Of It's) Pork Sausages, Oxo cubes and John Smith's beer. So I went there and got me some proper cocoa powder.
When I got home I started making the cake. I'd kind of thought of just making a small one to begin with, and assumed the quantities Nigella was talking about would result in something like that. But as I mixed this huge pile of flour, sugar and cocoa, I realised this was a much more serious proposition. I checked the recipe again. 'Enough,' it said 'for 10 servings, or one if you have a broken heart.'
I ploughed on regardless and baked about two-thirds of the mixture in a ceramic dish. After the allotted time I was surprised to see it had risen like a volcano, and even more surprised when I tipped it onto a wire rack and the whole thing disintegrated. There was a soggy mass in the middle of it that was nowhere near cooked. So I piled it all back into the dish and gave it another twenty minutes.
When that was done, I put the other one-third in to bake. This half-filled a spring-sided tin, and when the cake was baked I was able to get it out of the tin without trashing it. It did disintegrate a bit when I tried to slice it in half, but here's the finished result:
And here's the one I made earlier:
* 'The Resistance' CD by Muse, 'Nation' by Terry Pratchett, and a jelly-bean dispenser, in case you're interested.
Well, it could be another reason to be grumpy, but it's my birthday tomorrow. I hear you asking: why grumpy, Keefie? I reply: 'cos 52 sounds like a helluva lot to me.
MamaDuck has been on several secret missions over the last few days, and this evening she made my mouse mat unusable by plonking this load of stuff on it:
Talk about temptation! I've never been good at waiting for Christmas and birthdays. She refuses to accept that these events start at 1 minute past midnight. I'm under orders to ignore it until 8am tomorrow. Meh!
Related topic - lots of my FaceBook friends have been wishing me happy birthday (in fact I was out with a client yesterday and mentioned it would be my birthday soon: 'I know', he says. 'Well how do you know?' I ask. 'It's on FaceBook, mate,' he replies). I don't recall this happening before, and, more sinisterlyly, I don't recall telling FB when my birthday is. Although I suppose I must have told them at some point, but forgot 'cos I'm so old and prolly got Altshweiner's.
MamaDuck's cold, which has been incubating for a while, burst into its full glory this morning. So she hasn't gone to work, and needs to see a doctor. In our usual lackadaisical way, we haven't registered with the local Health Centre since we moved in April. And that's because we didn't get a new Empadronomiento* when we moved. We nearly did: we got as far as downloading the form and filling it in, but didn't actually give it to anybody. So, off we trot to the Ayuntamiento*, along with half the population of our district. When we found the building, there was a queue to get through the door (all bags and bodies were being x-rayed). Then there was a queue to get a ticket for the queue. And then there was the crowd of people waiting to be seen by about 15 officials. Our number came up after about 50 minutes, and we presented every scrap of documentation we had to the nice lady at the counter. She looked at it, tapped something into the computer, and handed us the sheet of paper she'd just printed. It was clearly not an empadronomiento. It was an appointment for tomorrow.
Ho hum. So MamaDuck got herself an appointment at our old Health Centre in Chueca, and has gone to cough and splutter all over a doctor.
*Empadronomiento =registration with the local council so they know how many binmen, schools and traffic wardens they need.
'Tengo Una Corazonada' is the slogan for Madrid's bid for the 2016 Olympics. It means 'I have a feeling'. Today, the IOC will make its decision. I have a feeling that Madrid has no chance for the very simple reason that 2012 is in London and they never have consecutive Games on the same continent. Still, we live in hope...
Shall I venture a prediction? On the basis of almost no evidence: Rio, Madrid, Chicago, Tokyo. Let's see how wrong I can be!
5.20pm: Chicago out!
5.30pm: Tokyo eliminado!
5.45pm: We have to wait another 45 minutes. Tension is mounting. I think Madrid can do it: 70% of the infrastructure is already built (including Metro station Estadio Olimpico): this makes it a good bet in these financially-straitened times. Plus security is not the concern it might be in Rio. Fingers crossed...
I wish I'd known this was happening a bit earlier: coulda gone down to Plaza de Oriente (outside the Royal Palace) and got me a BIG HAND.
6.25pm: TeleMadrid is showing Plaza de Oriente and Rio side-by-side: I have to say if it depends on the size of the crowd, Rio wins.
6.55pm: Rio. Borrocks.
So I was three-quarters right with my prediction, and there's always 2020.
Last night was La Noche En Blanco (White Night). This is a thing that's been happening in Madrid for the last four years, but it's the first time we've actually been. It started in Paris in 2002, and now happens in Brussels, Riga, Bucharest, Valetta and Amsterdam and other places. It's basically an all-night arts festival. Traffic is banned from the centre and the streets are thronged with people. Galleries throw open their doors (and vast queues form). Places that are not normally open to the public host events. There's a beautiful garden on the corner of Cibeles; it's part of the Army's HQ, and normally you'd stand a good chance of being shot if you tried to get in.
MamaDuck arrived back from the UK yesterday afternoon and said she wanted to go. So we hadn't really planned an itinerary, and just spent a few hours wandering around. Lots of people had white balloons, and we finished up in Plaza Mayor where they were being inflated and handed out. There must have been about twenty inflation stations, but the queues to get balloons were lengthy. Being a bit geriatric, we were home by 1am, but the events continue until 6am. The Metro stays open till 3am, instead of closing a 1am as it normally does.
The day after MIL's cremation, those of us who hadn't had to rush off home went up to Richmond in North Yorkshire to scatter the ashes. MIL was a great fan of 'All Creatures Great And Small', and we all felt she would have loved this idea. One of my brother's-in-law had arranged for us to have lunch at the Frenchgate Hotel in Richmond. Despite my Yorkshire/Geordie roots, I'd never been to Richmond before, and I was quite amazed by how beautiful it was.
The Frenchgate in Richmond
David Todd, the owner, always smiling in the face of adversity
The Frenchgate is a small, privately-owned hotel and restaurant. It's a gorgeous Georgian town house that has been lovingly restored. We were greeted and served by the owner, David Todd, whose calm confidence and wicked Yorkshire wit put us at ease immediately. I have to say this was probably the best meal I've ever had in my life, and I have had some good 'uns. I had partridge with potatoes boulangere, chorizo and swede (I hate swede, but this was little roasted cubes and it was perfect). There was also a blob of pumpkin mousse. MamaDuck had lamb stuffed with quinoia. After the main course, David brought the chef out for a well-deserved round of applause.
If we can manage the finances and the time, I really want to go back next summer and spend a couple of days there. And if you ever find yourself within a hundred miles of Richmond, you should too. Tell David Richard Branson sent you.
I got back from a week in England yesterday. I actually enjoyed this trip, mainly because I wasn't on my tod. The reason for the trip was sad - MamaDuck's mama passed away a few weeks ago and we had gone for her cremation and then scattering the ashes in 'Herriott Country' in North Yorkshire. So I had a couple of days with my dad and his girlfriend, and then carried on to MamaDuck's ancestral home in North Lincolnshire (okay, her dad's flat in Scunthorpe).
As you may or may not know, my wife comes from a large family, so her four brothers and one sister were there, plus some of their spouses and offspring. This kind of gathering doesn't happen often: two of the bros live in France, one in Holland, and one in Bristol. Added to that were my mother-in-law's three sisters, who I've never actually met before (one lives in North Wales, one in Brittany and one in Oman), plus two of daddy-in-law's brothers, who I have met many times before. And our very own Offspring came up from London too.
The night before the funeral, one of the brothers had the idea of doing something with old photos we found in MIL's albums that we could have on display during the service. So, starting at midnight, we scanned about 30 pictures, and I Photoshopped them into a collage with a border and drop-shadow round each image. We finished this at about 2.30 am. We were up early the next morning - there were flowers to collect and the collage to be printed as large as possible and mounted on something solid. I found a shop that opened at 8.30 that could have done it had their printer been working. But it was broken. I bought some mounting board and spray-mount from them, and waited for the Kodak shop they'd recommended to open at 9 am. The guy was in there, tinkering about, but resolutely ignoring the anxious punter on the doorstep. The funeral was at 10, by the way, and I had to get this done, get back to the mansion and get changed by 9.35 latest. Miraculously, it was done in time.
After the service we all retired to a pub for lunch, after which we sat in the garden and were entertained by the sight of three illegal car-washers in the pub car park being arrested by a van full of cops who appeared out of nowhere.
I'll do another post later about the scattering in North Yorkshire. But this post is entitled 'Dripping', so I should really tell you about that.
There are certain things from your home country/region that you get attached to when you are an expat. Things you just cannot get wherever it is you live. For me, this includes decent teabags, yellow split peas, pearl barley, gravy granules and Oxo stock cubes. For BIL (Brother-In-Law) Bill, pork dripping is a must-have item. If you are unfamiliar with the idea of dripping, it's the fat and juicy/jelly stuff that escapes from a chunk of beef or pork when you roast it - basically like lard, but tastier. He bought four tubs from Scunthorpe market. One we consumed on toast for our breakfasts during the visit. He took one home with him, and gave one each to me and anuvver bruvver.
I was a bit careless with packing mine: I had intended to tape the lid on, but forgot to. I was careful to keep my bag upright during the trip to Liverpool Ringo Airport, knowing that the dripping would probably be fairly liquid by then. Of course, when you stick your bag on the conveyor for the X-ray, it has to go on sideways. Oops.
Now, I don't know if there's an elevated security level in the UK at the moment, but when I arrived they actually checked every single passport - a few months earlier when I came, there was nobody personing the desks at all. But this time I had to queue for fifteen minutes to get in. And to get out from Liverpool there was a 30-minute queue. For probably the first time in my life, I managed to get through the arch without it going insane. But I still got a fairly intimate frisking. When I went to collect my stuff, I saw my bag had been held back: the X-ray operator dude said he thought I had a pot of Brylcreem or something. The bag was brought over to me and I explained it was pork dripping. This clearly meant nothing to the security guy, and I found myself hoping he wasn't a Muslim. I took the dripping out of the plastic bag it was in with my other stuff. He put on some latex gloves, and gingerly placed the offending item into a plastic bag for removal.
Anyhoo, I had an uneventful flight, and am now back in Madrid.
The fares may look cheap in the adverts, but by the time Ryanair and easyJet have done with you, you pay through the nose.
I bought tickets on easyJet a couple of months ago, for MamaDuck to spend a couple of weeks in England. Something came up recently, and we needed to bring forward her departure date a few days. No problem, says the easyJet website, it'll cost you €75. That's almost as much as the original return ticket cost, but the fare has risen since then, so you have to pay the difference.
Just out of curiosity, I checked Ryanair. Whenever I've done this previously, although the route exists in theory, there have never been any actual flights available. But lo! This time, lots of flights, and seemingly very cheap fares. So we decided that I would use the easyJet ticket, and we'd buy fresh tickets from Ryanair for MamaDuck. By the time we'd got to the end of the Ryanair booking it was €78 (with compulsory online check-in @ €5 each way, 1 hold bag @ €10 each way). Ho hum. We booked it anyway.
Yesterday I went onto easyJet.com to change the name on the original ticket. I had an idea this would cost €30. And so it did, each way. Plus another €55 to cover the difference in fare since we originally bought it and what the fare is now. This is blatant robbery, so I aborted the transaction. For a laugh, I checked easyJet's refund policy. You're right, they don't have one. Actually, I'm lying - the policy is that they don't give refunds. I'm lying again. They do give refunds in exceptional circumstances, but these are in the form of credits to your account (minus a 'reasonable' handling fee) and they have to be used within six months. So if anyone wants a cheap flight from Madrid to Liverpool and back, you can have my ticket for €200.
By now, though, I'm quick keen on going to England for a bit - it's been way too hot for far too long here in Madrid - so I've booked with Ryanair too.
I was tidying up my computer this morning, and found this blog post which I wrote while I was in England in June, but never published because I couldn't get online. But I know you enjoy my rants, and this is definitely ranty, so here goes...
I left Liverpool this morning. Train to Doncaster. Being Mr Super-Organised, I had booked a ticket in advance. Being a suspicious foreign git, though, the website refused to accept my payment card. I enlisted Offspring to do it on my behalf, using his UK credit card. He emailed me the reference number for the booking, and in theory I should have been able to pick up the tickets from a machine at Lime Street Station anytime before the trip.
I noticed the document said I would need the number of the card used to make the booking - I made sure to get it from Offspring.
So, I turn up at the station in plenty of time, find the machine, and am somewhat dismayed to find the bugger actually wants me to put the card into the machine. I go into the Virgin Trains help office, and complain a bit. First thing they say is 'these trips are nothing to do with Virgin.' Not my problem, I say, it's your machine, and it would have been useful if the confirmation email had said they wanted the actual card, not just the number. What am I supposed to do? Ooh, they say, get your son to go to a railway station and pick up the tickets, and then he can fax them to us. Yes. Brilliant solution, with 40 minutes before departure.
So I mentally break their windows (I'd decided against trying to tell them that I am Richard Branson, and congratulating them for their diligent foiling of this obvious fraudster), and go to the ticket office. I find out a ticket will be 33 squids, they will not accept my payment card, and there are supposed to be cash machines at the entrance to platform 7. The cash machines are surrounded by steel construction barriers, and I can't get to them. So I head off out of the station: the wrong way, as it happens. I get some way up London Road, and there is not an ATM to be seen. So I head down into the City Centre, and eventually found one. Get cash, and rush back to the station, sweaty, panting and pissed off.
When I return, a queue has assembled at the ticket office - the old lady behind me wants to talk to me about the weather. I finally get away from the ticket office with my ticket and ten minutes to spare before the train leaves. I am fairly desperate for a quick beer by this time, but both bars in the station are closed. Never mind, there'll be a buffet service on the train.
I get on the train, and off it goes. The guard comes round pretty sharpish, and I ask him if there's a buffet. No, he says, they were all made redundant six weeks ago, you should've got something before you left. Yes, thanks and fuck off. This train actually goes from Liverpool to Norwich, and takes about five hours - imagine being stuck there without refreshment for that trip.
Crossing eastward over the Pennines, the heavens open, and when I get off at Sheffield, where I have to change trains, I take a moment to get my waterproof jacket from the bottom of my case. The other people on the platform enjoy the view of my underwear, PJs and other stuff as it tumbles onto the wet platform. I am irritated by the 'safety announcements' on the PA every two minutes: 'it's raining: wet patches on the platform may be slippery, be careful and don't sue us, you stupid people.'
The train to Doncaster, when I eventually find it after hoiking my luggage up and down stairs between several platforms where the train *could* have been, is spacious and fast. It gets to Doncaster in record time, but Doncaster station doesn't have a platform ready for it. So we wait outside the station for a slot, and actually arrive five minutes late.
The final irritation. Doncaster recently got itself a transport interchange (bus station next to railway station, some taxi ranks nearby) combined with an extension to the big mall. I'd arranged to meet my dad and his girlfriend at the pub across the road. But I find out that the old crossings are now gone. The only way to cross the road is to go into the mall extension, up the escalators, and bumble round like a lost thing. A two-minute dash across the road has now become a 25-minute trip through northernChav central. Carrying half a ton of luggage.
Anyhoo, I'm here. No Internet, nothing to do. Shall try to find a spot of wi-fi (yeah, right) either in the village or in Donny.
When we first arrived in Madrid, a little over two years ago, MamaDuck had risen early one Saturday morning to try to join a public library in La Latina. I was somewhat dischuffed to be woken by a phone call from her. 'Get your camera and your arse down here, right now,' she said.
So I did. The day was La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Paloma (the feast/fair/party of the Virgin of the Pigeons (others mights say they mean doves, in which case they should be talking about Palomas Blancas)). Us Brits know it, and largely ignore it, as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, where she got a special upgrade on the big fluffy cloud to take her up to Heaven without her having to go through all the tiresome business of actually dying first.
I took lots of photos, but I can't find them right now. What happens is they have a float at the church of La Virgen de la Paloma in La Latina, and people arrive from early in the morning to pin bunches of flowers onto another float, and eventually they do a procession. We were there for most of the morning and there were assorted stalls selling traditional food and drinks, and a lot of people dressed as old-fashioned Madrileños.
The fiesta goes on for about four nights - music and drinking and dancing in the streets, and so on.
All jolly good fun.
We had planned to maybe think about attending some of this, but decided we were just too tired. But we completely failed to realise that today, Saturday, is a major public holiday. I went out shopping this morning and was astounded to find the market shut. Likewise all the supermarkets, little shops and all but one bar. It's a bit of a pain because we'll be eating lentils all weekend, but at the same time it's pretty cool that people who work in shops and bars do actually get the day off.
I'm beginning to understand why most Madrileños get out of the city in August if they can. It's bloody hot (high 30s, methinks) and it's been a bit humid the last few days. You might think we should be used to it, having lived in Dubai for so long. But everything in Dubai is air-conditioned, even the cheapest, nastiest car has a/c. So you run from building to car and back again and don't really experience the heat. In Spain the extreme heat only hits for a month or two, so air conditioning is not so common.
We had a house-warming party a month ago, and about thirty people came. The house certainly got warm, and two of our neighbours disappeared down to their store-room and came back with a portable air-conditioner. They said they didn't need it in their flat because they've got permanent a/c installed, so we could hang on to it as long as we wanted. It was extremely kind of them, but we really didn't think we'd use it. It has, however, been on day and night for most of the last week.
Before we made the move to Spain (2 years and 12 days ago, in fact), we spent a couple of summers in Valencia and Barcelona. During the second of these trips we did a 2-week intensive Spanish course. On our way to class one day (we might have got off the tram one stop too early), my shirt was soaked, so MamaDuck disappeared into a shop and came out bearing a brand-new t-shirt. I put it on and we went into the classroom. Llorence, our conversation teacher took one look at it and collapsed in laughter.
'What does it mean?' I asked. 'Fuck, it's hot,' he replied.
Sadly, that shirt went missing shortly after we returned to Dubai, although I have seen it on sale here in Madrid.
I've just noticed it's been a while since my last post. I apologize for that. The last few weeks have been somewhat shitty - mainly to do with Barclays and Jazztel stealing money from me, plus a personal matter that you don't need to know about - so here's a post about a nice thing we did a couple of weeks ago.
A friend of ours said 'let's go swimming in the mountains!' Everybody else said 'huh?'
Watch out for Coo-Beasties on the path
Near the village of Cercedilla, 57km north of Madrid, there's a park containing a sort of Amazonian jungle walkway up in the trees, and an outdoor swimming pool. About twelve of us decided to take the train there. It's a Cercanias (suburban railway) choo-choo, and I think the rest of the party joined it at Atocha or Nuevos Ministerios. We got on at Chamartín, and walked as far up the train as we could, but we couldn't find our buddies. A phone call confirmed that they were on the train, but it turned out later it was actually two shortish trains joined together, so we were unable to walk through the two drivers' cabs.
Short walk up a mountain
We all met up at Cercedilla station, and made our way to the bus stop. There was no sign of any bus actually showing up, but our leader said it was walkable, and would take maybe half an hour.
Jungle trail in the trees
An hour and a half later, after walking through some fairly spectacular woodland (all of it uphill, pant, pant), we arrived at the park. It cost, I think, €6 to get in. I have to say that whoever the genius was that decided to have this pool built in this location deserves a medal of some sort. There are two pools, actually - a shallow one for kiddiewinkles, and a deep one for grown-ups. It sits close to the bottom of a valley, and is surrounded on all sides by tree-covered mountains. Amazing.
We spent maybe three or four hours there, and then headed back to the village. When we got to the bus stop it seemed we had just missed one. The next (and last) was scheduled for about ten to ten, so we walked back to Cercedilla. This was somewhat easier than the walk up to the park: it was downhill, and it was a shorter route. Still, I reckon it took 45 minutes. One of the party had arrived by car, and he and his wife offered us a lift back to Madrid, which we gladly accepted.
When we got to the station, the train was on the platform. Those that were planning to take the train waited for the stragglers to arrive. Unfortunately the train left before they got to the station. The next train would be an hour, so we decamped to a nearby bar.
Service was a bit slow
When it was time to go, our friend with the car - we'll call him 'The Cat' because he is a Madrileño - took us on a tour of Cercedilla. Up and down, down and up, up some more. He was completely unable to find the car park where he'd left his vehicle. Eventually, some kind soul told us where the town proper (which we'd never known about, despite having been to Cercedilla a few times) was, and after probably an hour's extra walking, we found it.
We noticed the weather was a little bit cooler today. Of course, it's the first of August, so we're almost into winter. It was quite humid and overcast when we came back from town this afternoon, and at 8pm we heard rain outside. It was a torrential downpour. Which is good, because we hadn't watered the plants on the roof.
Many people have said that my book Tybalt & Theo would make a great film or TV series, and I agree with them. So a few months ago, I set about writing a screenplay adaptation of it.
I have to say that it was a massively difficult task - it might have been easier if it was someone else's novel I was ripping to shreds. The hardest thing, initially, is to get the length right. One A4 page of properly formatted script is reckoned to be about one minute of screen time. So for a lightweight comedy like this (especially one from a writing virgin), the ideal length is 90 minutes. Compressing 280 pages of novel into that was damn hard - in fact, I didn't make it, I stopped when it got to 110 pages.
Anyway, I sent the script off to the UK Film Council: they have a development fund for new writers, and I might have got some dosh off them. In the end, they said no, but very nicely. They offered me free use of a Script Doctor service, which surprised me immensely. I don't know if every reject gets this offer - it must cost UK Film a fortune if they do. So, the script is now with the doctor, and I await the diagnosis nervously.
One of the absolute basic rules of selling stuff, especially online, is to make it really easy for your customer to pay. Make it so that the customer barely notices they've paid. We have the technology.
For reasons I won't go into (okay, it's teh recession, man, you can haz ch33zburger, g00d gess), our Telefonica payment did not go through at the start of this month. No worries, I have cash money now, I'll pay the bill.
Telefonica themselves don't handle the dirty stuff, despite having a gazillion shops scattered around the planet. You can pay into various banks (but only between 9.00 and 9.05, on Mondays or Thursdays when there's an R in the month), or any Post Office at any time.
So I go to the Post Office, hand over the bill, and the clerk types stuff into the computer.
Computer says no.
She tries a different combination of possibilities.
Computer still says no.
I'm irritated, but go away without hardly killing anybody, and return the next day with other numbers that might work, and a sunny, optimistic smile on face.
Computer said no.
You may be wondering, if you've ever lived in one of the many extant versions of the real world, why this is so difficult. So am I. The Telefonica computer system that is installed in all Spanish Post Offices wants four pieces of information: name, phone number, type of identification (CIF/NIF, passport, residence card) and the number that corresponds to the selected type of ID. Plenty of scope for error there, then, and absolutely no need for anything more than the phone number. All of the info is printed on the bill anyway, so it's just redundant, time-wasting crap.
I went home and called Telefonica. They do actually provide service in English, and the boy on the phone confirmed that all the info I gave him was correct, and it should work. Go back and try again, he said. Fuck off and die, I replied. I tell him I suspect there's a programming error in the system (yay, Keefie, call centre operatives know all about stuff like that). The CIF/NIF that puzzled you a bit earlier, well, CIF is a company registration number, NIF is a Spaniard's National ID number. I have neither. I have an NIE (Foreigner's ID number). So I think that's where the glitch is. I ask the dude if he can change the ID type to Passport. Sure, he says, and tries to do it. Ah, he says, can't do it. There's already an account with that passport number. Yes, I say, that'll be the old place in Chueca. He confirms that this is the case. But, I say, that account is closed, yes? Yes, it is, but it stays on the system like, forever.
I can't get him to understand how illogical this all is: I might have five properties scattered throughout Spain - do I need a separate form of ID for each one? He's given up. Go to Post Office, go to Post Office... is all he can say now.
I'm only trying to give them money. If any of you wanted to give me money I'd be bending over backwards to get it off you. But that's because I'm not a state-owned can't-be-bothered used-to-be-monopoly.
I learnt two new words of Spanish today, cerradura = lock (lit 'close hard') and cerrajero = locksmith.
Why? I hear you ask. Well, MamaDuck's handbag was stolen today. It contained her phone, credit card, sunglasses, other stuff, and keys to the house. It also contained a few bits of paper that had our address on.
She reported the theft to the Police, got a report and set about cancelling the credit card and mobile account. Given that the thief not only had the keys, but also the address, I set about getting our front door lock changed, hence the new vocabulary. We now have a lovely new cylinder in our door (85 Euros including 5 keys and installation).
Amazingly, we've just had a visit from two nice young Policias, returning the handbag. All intact except for the credit card, the shades and the phone. So the thief got virtually nothing - the card was maxed-out and is now cancelled, the shades were scratched, the phone was a freebie from Vodafone. But we've shelled out 85 Euros for a new lock, wasted half a day chasing round fixing things, and will now have to buy new shades and a new phone.
I have to admit to being a little bit disappointed. I was planning to spend tomorrow here in the dark with the blinds down. When I heard the thief trying to get the key into the lock, I was going to rush him with the blunt end of our broom, push him down the stairs and nick his wallet. If necessary, the ironing board is strategically placed by the door for a more serious attempt at achieving unconsciousness. Failing that, I know where the sharp knives are.
I have to say, I have nothing but contempt for these people. What fucking planet are they on? Why do they think it's okay to take other people's property? I mentioned our unfortunate propensity for being robbed to an Ecuadorian lady once, and asked her what she thought. She shrugged, and said 'you are obviously Gringos, so you are rich, so it doesn't matter to you.' Hmm, can't deny the first point. Completely, utterly, galactically wrong on the second two.
This kind of crime is usually blamed on Romanians and Roma/Gypsies/Pikeys. We can tell you with the voice of more experience than most that Latinos are actually the ones to watch.*
*Racist generalisation, not all Latinos are thieves. Investments can go down as well as up. May contain nuts. Although Romanians and Roma need to be treated with extreme caution. Disagree? Sue me.
You don't have to be able to sing, remember words, or anything!
We were invited to see a special showing of the documentary 'Young At Heart' last night, and it was bloody brilliant. If you ever get the chance to see this, don't miss it. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll stomp your feet like a foot-stomping thing, and at the end of it, you'll come out and think 'when I'm old, I wanna be like that.'
I spent most of yesterday designing a cover for my new novel:
MamaDuck kindly pointed out that this is a bit of an arse about tit way to work, given that the book is nowhere near finished yet. But it is now just over 10,000 words, which is the minimum required for uploading it to Authonomy, so a cover is needed - you have to either supply your own or use one of Authonomy's generic horrors. You can read it here.
At long last, the British Government has admitted that its insanely expensive ID card scheme is doomed to fail. The problems with various iterations of this ill-conceived project were legion. Everyone in the UK would have been forced to have one. They would have been very expensive (the last estimate I saw put it at about 203 quid each). It was claimed they would help the War On Terror™ (complete and utter bollocks, ministers admitted later). The cards could have been multi-purpose - one horrific proposal suggested the ID card could also contain your driving licence, your credit cards, your medical history and your passport. Imagine the consequences of losing that baby!
I actually think a simple ID card is a good idea - most European countries have them. But the UK scheme was never intended to be simple. It would be the Rolls-Royce of data-collection and mining. So that means it would be primarily an IT project, and recent experience has shown that the UK government is utterly incapable of managing IT projects. This would have been the grandaddy of all failed IT projects - over-budget, late, and ultimately not fit for purpose. And yet another massive infringement of personal freedom.
The cards will, apparently, still be made available to anyone who wants one (it's suggested that youngsters might get one so they can prove their age and be able to buy booze - but there are already very simple schemes that do that). And foreigners. Yeah foreigners would have to get one, 'cos obviously a passport isn't good enough.
When I arrived back in Madrid yesterday afternoon, fresh from Yorkshire, I was definitely in cheapskate mode, so I decided to take the Metro/bus home, rather than a taxi. I bought myself a two-Euro ticket (see Graeme's post on why you have to do this), and went to Cuzco via Nuevos Ministerios. At Cuzco, I waited for the bus that goes to the end of our street (they're normally every 5-10 minutes, but because I was waiting for it, tired, sweaty and overdressed for Madrid having just got back from not-warm-at-all England, I had to wait twenty minutes), and when it eventually came, I popped my 10-trip ticket into the machine. Machine said no. I checked the back of the ticket, and there's definitely seven trips left on it. I gave it to the driver, who punched a hole in it.
Didn't think any more of it.
This morning, I had to withdraw some cash to pay Telefonica to put my Internet back on. The first cash machine said no, can't read the magnetic strip. So did the second one. Beginning to panic, thinking the card's been skimmed again (see this horrific post if you missed the skim-scam), I rushed off to my bank to get the card cancelled and a replacement issued.
I tell ya: never a dull moment in Madrid.
But I wonder what form of exotic machine I passed through on my travels yesterday that wiped these magnetic strips? Most odd.
Oh, and thanks to M at M & J for this heads-up; we may have got rid of the skim-scammers. Still haven't had my sodding money back though.
I know you've missed me while I've been stuck in some of the more boring parts of northern England, and I'm sorry - my Dad has no Internet (no mobile phone, even), so it's been a bit of a challenge to get online.
A couple of years ago, there was a community computer education place in the ex-mining village where my Dad insists on living, and you could get online there for as long as you wanted, for free. During a flying visit last summer, I found it had closed down, but was able to use an Internet cafe in Doncaster, the nearest town. This year, I found that last year's Internet cafe has gone, and I was unable to find a replacement. Never mind, there's a brand-new public library in the village - they're bound to have Internet. And indeed they did, but you had to join the library to make use of it. I explain that however unlikely it may sound, I am actually just visiting the village for a week. No problem, says the man, you can have temporary membership for a month. All you need is a proof of address; a utilities bill, for example. Oh, I say, they're all at home. In Madrid. Oh, says the man. But I expect, I say, that my Dad is a member of this library. He types our family name into the computer, but it seems none of my family is a member any more (I'm secretly relieved that they have no record of the book I borrowed and never returned back in 1976*). I tell him I'll return tomorrow, with my Dad and some of his bills in tow.
But I don't return, because later that day I find that one of the Wetherspoon's pubs in Doncaster offers free wi-fi.
The next day, I go to the pub, fire up my MacBook, and follow the instructions in the leaflet. Doesn't effing work. The bar staff have never used Macs before, and so are completely unable to help.
In desperation, I go to the Tourist Information office and ask about Internet cafes. Oh yes, they say, just round the corner, next to Barclays Bank. Unbelievable. I had been to Barclays at least three times in the preceding few days and never noticed the place. It was serviceable (although I couldn't use the mouse on its 6-inch cable because I'm left-handed), but very noisy with people making Skype calls to their grannies in Poland and Romania.
I did see adverts for mobile Internet dongles. One of these would have been ideal for the week, but the two-year contract put me off.
I must be an Internet addict - I feel like half of me is missing when I can't get online. So it was great to get back and find that Telefonica have suspended our ADSL.
*Bare-faced lie, included for humourous purposes only.
Having had the pleasure of the DIL's (Daddy In Law) company in Madrid for about 10 days, I flew back with him to Jolly Ole England. The DIL has a couple of NHS hips, and so can't run about like he used to - wheelchair assistance was required, and provided for free (unlike Dubai, Marhaba my bottom). This meant we got front-row seats on the plane, but sadly when the lift-thingy deposited us at Arrivals at Liverpool John Lennon, it was the wrong door; the screen over the baggage carousel said 'City of Derry', and there were no bags on it. We wandered around, bewildered, for a bit, and eventually found another carousel with two solitary bags on it. Phew, as they say in The Dandy.
DIL was catching a bus to Manchester, where his sister lives and his car was left, and I was being picked up by a buddy who lives in Liverpool. I was given beer and Scouse (Liverpool's traditional stew - dee-licious), and yesterday (Friday) we hit the town.
I lived in Liverpool about 23 years ago, worked there, got married there. I love the place to bits, and was sad when I left it, because it really felt like it was dying (had Margaret Thatcher had her way, she would have just nuked it). But it hasn't died. It has recovered and grown like a growing thing. There's a stack of new building completed and ongoing. It's all very impressive. The most impressive thing, I guess, is Liverpool One: this is basically an extension of the city centre down towards the river. It's a massive mixed-use development of shops, offices, leisure and apartments; the architecture is sensitive and innovative. Rather than build a monolithic thing, it's been planned as separate buildings in different styles, so you have new streets, vistas, corners, squares, fountains, a park, and so on. Prince Charles would hate it because there aren't any neo-classical or vernacular bits. But everybody else loves it because it is beautiful, human-scale, organic-looking space. Did I say I liked it? I'll say it again: I've never seen an urban development this good, anywhere.
The windows of our flat have been a little bit grubby ever since we moved in, and we could never figure out a way to clean them. The balconies are only 4 inches deep. MamaDuck found a solution a few weeks ago. A local company who do various kinds of cleaning. They sent two (two!) chaps round to give us a quote. I thought it was stupendously expensive, but MamaDuck accepted it and an appointment was made for today.
I had expected him this morning, but he actually showed up at 7pm. He asked for water and a towel. And then proceeded to remove the windows from their frames. He washed them all, (both sides) in our hallway. It took him about an hour, and then he phoned for a colleague who spoke English. They chatted for about half an hour, and eventually I asked them if there was a problem, and could I please have my windows put back. And would they kindly go away and stop disrupting my life.
I follow British politics, and other stuff around the world. I rarely comment on it on my blog, 'cos it's like, boring. I hated the Tories under Thatcher, and have been less than impressed by NuLabor. I wasn't too impressed by Old Labour, but if they'd got rid of old intellectual Commies in donkey jackets sooner, they could have been okay. NuLabor is Toryismo with a friendly face. When the friendly face of NuLabor (Blair) finally threw in the towel (I wonder if he knew what was coming), the fishface (Wee Gordy Broon) took over. Nobody wanted him to be PM, except him (and possibly his wife). He has been a complete and utter disaster.
He has no mandate. Nobody wants him. He has presided over the Credit Crunch (not necessarily his fault), the MPs expenses scandal (he could have fixed that before it happened), the worst local election results on record, and now multiple resignations from his Cabinet.
And now he says 'I will not waver or walk away.'
That's okay Gordon. All you need to do is run away, as fast as you can. I give him a week.
It looks inevitable that Daveed Cameroon will be the next Prime Minister. I don't like the idea, but at least he seems like someone who listens to the pipple and responds appropriately.
We've just been to see the new Star Trek film: the story of the original crew before they joined the Enterprise. Bloody brilliant. I've never been mad keen on Star Trek movies, but this one really is special.
I don't think I'll be blogging much in the next few weeks: the Daddy-In-Law arrives tomorrow for about ten days, and I am flying back to England with him and I'll be there for about 12 days.
So, this morning I had to go to the Police Station to pick up my Police Report. Once I have that, I can go to my bank, make the refund claim and pick up my new ATM card. Shouldn't take long, I thought, so I didn't take a book or anything. We all make mistakes.
The police gave me a queue ticket, number 92. The display in the Room of Despair said 121. There were nine other people in the room. I couldn't work this out. If it goes up to 999 and then round again, where are the other 878 people? I don't know, but in the first forty-five minutes another eight people arrived, and nobody left. Then a skinny police lady arrived at the door, and took a couple of people away. Ten minutes later she took some more. The next time she came there was a slight altercation when somebody accidentally tried to jump she queue. Easily done: she wasn't calling numbers, just 'next'. So we all showed each other our queue tickets, and got organised. I was next but one, and then I was next. When she called me in, she printed off a copy of the report, had me read it and sign it, and then printed off three more copies for me to sign. And that was it. No interrogation, no requests for evidence, no nothing. They could have just printed off the copies and left them by the door somewhere - all I would have to do is show up, sign the buggers, and take my copy. Deeply narked, I was.
Then I headed across town to my bank. It's only a small branch: there's the cashier, the manager, and one or two clerks. Today there was only one clerk, Paula, the one who speaks English. She was busy with a customer. I waited happily for a quarter of an hour, but there was no sign of their transaction approaching completion. After half an hour I began to pace the room, making sure that Paula knew I was there. Half an hour after that, Paula left her desk to adjust the air conditioning. I asked her how much longer she was going to be. Maybe ten more minutes, she said. Shortly after that she went into the boss's office for a chat, and then he came out. He crossed his arms and spoke to the customer.
'So, this planet you want to buy with our money...'
'What do you want it for?'
'I'm going to build lots of palm-tree-shaped islands on it, and build lots of little houses on them. I will sell the houses to mad people.'
'Okay, good plan, but have you considered there is a Crisis Economica on at the moment?'
'Yes, yes, but it is the duty of the banks to keep lending, to help dig us out of this hole you created.'
'Yes, of course. Okay, twenty trillion Euros is quite a lot, but I think I can trust you to pay it back.'
I am tearing my hair out by this time. I have no fucking idea what this woman wants or why it is taking so long to sort it out. I am also dying of starvation because I have had no breakfast, and I can't just leave, because I have no cash on me and my ATM card has been cancelled. In short, I am inches away from killing someone. The manager notices this, and comes over to talk to me. I don't particularly want to talk to him as he has no English whatsoever. But I have no choice.
I show him the police report. His eyes get slitty and he invites me to sit down.
'So, you were in Milan two days ago, withdrew some money, and now you are pretending it was stolen.'
'No, you arse, look at the date and time on here, when I reported it to your Tetuan branch, fifteen minutes after it happened.'
'Yes, okay, but you ordered a replacement card before this happened. Why was that?'
'Because it's split. Look.'
'Yes, okay, but the replacement card has been here for over a week, and you never bothered to collect it. Why not?'
'Because you never told me it was ready.'
And so on.
He gets a file folder and a fat red felt pen. Writes 'FRAUDE' on the front. Writes 'Keffieboy' under that. Fills in some forms and scribbles all over the copies of the documents I've given him.
Then he gets the replacement card that I'd ordered. I look at it. The number is exactly the same as the original. I tell him this is no good. He agrees, and cuts both of them up and staples the bits into his file. It is three p.m. by now, and I notice the cashier seems to be locking up the money.
I tell the manager I need some cash. He begins to say no, but then realises that this really, really, would not be a good move. He tells the cashier to unlock the money. She whinges like hell, but does it anyway.
Then we get down to me needing a replacement replacement ATM card. He asks the cashier to check the afternoon mail. Amazingly, there is a new new card for me - apparently when a card is cancelled, their system automatically orders a new one, and it takes two days to make them. They always hold cards at the branch, which is a relief, because I notice it is addressed to my old address in Chueca. He grills me about why I have not informed them that I've moved. I tell him I did, and he looks on the computer (which has finally finished the slowest boot-up process since 286s were hot). My old address is listed as primary, the new one as an alternative. It takes him 10 minutes to get the system to accept the new one as the real one.
It seems my PIN will have been sent to my old address (ex-neighbour Neil - free beer if you're reading this and can pick it up). Finally, the bank manager, after possibly the most exciting day of his life, thanks me for my patience (now I can spot sarcasm in Spanish), and we wrap it up. It is 3.45 p.m., which is a bit late for breakfast, even in Spain, and I am completely exhausted.
Moral of the story: take a good book whenever you have to deal with cops or banks: if nothing else, you can hit them with it.
We were out with some friends last night, including a couple of visitors from the UK. The conversation turned to robbery/pickpocketing in Madrid, and we smugly declared ourselves robbery-free for over a year, and able to spot all the danger signs and avoid them.
I spoke too soon: I was robbed twice this morning by some asshole in Milan (the one in Italy).
I might not even have known about it, except I have a doohickey on my bank account that sends me an SMS whenever 50 Euros or more is withdrawn from my account. It's quite annoying, actually: I know when I'm taking money out, and I don't really need the added thrill of a vibrating phone in my pocket whenever 'computer says yes.' I've been thinking of cancelling the facility.
Now I'm glad I didn't.
I'd just settled down to some serious work when I got the SMS. Bingely-beep.
'We like to inform you that you have withdrawn 200 Euros from ATM at Poste Italiano.'
Feck! I throw on shoes and socks and head off to the bank. On the way I try calling the bank's hotline. A computer wants to attempt voice recognition of my ID number. It gets it hopelessly wrong both times-- my fault: it's obviously never heard Spanish spoken in a Yorkshire accent before. Never mind, I'm almost at the bank.
'We like to inform you that you have withdrawn 100 Euros from ATM at Via Riccardo P.'
I storm into the bank. The two girls who look after problems are both busy. The cashier is not. Fortunately, he spikka a bitta da Ingles. I ask him to cancel my card. He asks me for ID. I show him the laminated passport copy that I always carry. He says 'this is a copy. I need original passport.'
I tell him that's at my house, but meanwhile please cancel the card. He can't do it, and he phones my branch in Chueca. He speaks to Paula, and passes her on to me. I guess she recognises my voice and generally grumpy attitude (Paula likes to call me from time to time and tell me I don't have enough money in my account to pay the bill that has just been presented) and tells the bloke to cancel my card. He does so.
'Now,' he says, 'you haff to go Police, tell them you card cloned, get denuncia, take to you home bank. Money refund will be two month.'
Well, this looks like fun. MamaDuck has been through the denunciation process once, and it took hours. Basically what happens (if your Spanish is rubbish) is you go to a specific cop shop near Plaza de España. They have a phonebox there that can connect you to a translator of most European languages, and Arabic (although I didn't see any options for Russian, Chinese, Gallego or Catalan).
When I finally find the place, the cops on the door ask me what I want. I garble something including the words 'denuncia' and 'ladron'. They tell me to wait, and after a minute or two a young lady, not dressed like a cop, appears and asks me what the problem is.
She takes a queue ticket for me, and escorts me into the Room Of Despair (actually Sala de Espere - the waiting room). It is full of miserable-looking people. She goes to the phone box in the corner and dials a number. Then she passes the handset to me and goes away.
I speak with a lady who has a very posh-sounding English accent. She is breathtakingly efficient, and the whole thing is done in about three minutes. She gives me a Police Report number, and I thank her.
In the lobby, there is a door to the room where I think I am supposed to collect the report. I try to enter, but the cops on the door stop me. They tell me it will take some time: maybe this evening, tonight, tomorrow or the next day.
I'll go back tomorrow to see if it's there.
I have no idea of how this can have happened: I'm pretty vigilant at ATMs, especially when it looks like there might be some kind of skimming device on the card slot. And it may be a mere coincidence that I requested a new ATM card a few days ago because the current one is knackered.
Today is a public holiday in Madrid for the patron saint, San Isidro. So we decided to head out to the country. Actually we decided to go to the mountains. We found a slight glitch when we got to the main station at Chamartín: due to engineering works, we would have to get off the train at Los Molinos (the stop before Cercedilla) and take a special bus to Cotos. It seemed fairly straightforward, so we did it, along with several other people who were obviously kitted out for some serious walking.
However, when we got to Los Molinos, the train doors declined to open. We ran down the carriage to another set of doors, and they failed too. The train continued on to Cercedilla. We hammered on the windows to attract the attention of some security guys who pressed the button from outside, obviously thinking 'who are these morons who can't open a train door?'
We pointed out the problem to the ticket inspector and the driver, who were both massively uninterested in doing anything about it. 'Get back on,' they said, 'we're leaving in ten minutes.'
So we did get back on, choosing a different carriage, and when we got back to Los Molinos, the ticket inspector pressed the button and off we got. Of course we had missed the bus up the mountain, and the next one was an hour and a quarter away.
So we strolled into Los Molinos, and found a very pleasant little town with some excellent bars and restaurants. We abandoned the mountain plan, and spent the day there.
The main street with snow-capped mountains in the background.
The restaurant where we had lunch is a converted ice factory.
Fields and mountains.
The Guadarrama River runs through it.
There are plenty of trees and green stuff in and around the town. But despite the brilliant sunshine, if you weren't actually in it, it was pretty cold (apparently the temperature here is always 5 degrees less than Madrid: I guess it's at least 1km above sea level). They always get snow in winter.
A totally unexpected day out. Thank you, San Isidro.
I typed two little words that made me very happy yesterday. They were 'THE' and 'END'.
Yes! I've finished the first draft of my novel Tybalt & Theo. I had been aiming for 80,000 words, but ran out of story at 75,000. I started it in October last year, although I didn't work on it every single day, and at one point (just after halfway) had almost convinced myself that I couldn't finish it. I worked on it for 68 days, producing an average of 1,100 words a day, although there were nine days when I wrote 2,500 or more. My best daily total was 3,369.
So, what's next? Well, I'm going to print it all out and take a red pen to it. And then write a splendid query letter and detailed synopsis to send to literary agents. You might think the synopsis should come before the book. That's never worked for me: I have written two or three as the book has progressed, but what happens in the book is nothing like what the synopsis said should happen.
If you've been paying attention, you'll know that the first one-third of the book is on the peer-review website authonomy.com. It's had almost 300 very positive reviews, some of them from published writers and professional editors. So I know it's not a pile of tosh, and it does what it was intended to do, which is make people laugh.
However, writing a good book has never been a guarantee of getting published. And in the current economic climate, publishers are less willing than ever to take on unknown authors. But you've got to try, haven't you?
The weather has been pretty fab here in Madrid for about the last week. Our new flat doesn't actually get much in the way of sunshine, although it does get plenty of light because of the big windows. So it's pretty cool, and we're expecting to get through the summer without too much difficulty: the apartment has no A/C, but I don't think we'll need it.
It has become my habit to knock off work at around four or five, and go to a bar across the road for a caña (small beer). We like this bar because the husband and wife who run it have Middle Eastern roots (he's Palestinian, she's Iraqi). Inside, the bar is teeny, but when the sun shines they have a terraza - half a dozen tables out on the pavement. They don't have WiFi, though.
Today, I thought I'd try an experiment. Went to the bar and took my MacBook with me. Left the WiFi switched in the apartment. I think WiFi has a range of about thirty metres, but maybe I'm wrong, or no good at estimating distances. Anyway, I'm sitting outside the bar now, writing this, and connected to the Interwebs.
How cool is that? Very, I reckon.
Update: Just had a Skype call with my son, including video. Awesomely magical!
Since moving into our new flat, we have been short of bookcases. We had lots of these in Dubai - 'Billy' bookcases from IKEA. But we decided not to ship them here because of the cost/bulk/weight thingie. It just would not have been worth it: it would be much cheaper to buy new ones when we arrived. As it turned out, our previous flat was way too small to accommodate such a luxury. The books remained in boxes.
Our new flat is somewhat bigger, and has a perfect space in the dining area to fit two six-foot tall Billys. We checked the IKEA website, and were pleased to see they now do Billy bookcases in royal blue laminate. This would make a pleasing contrast with the light oak flooring and peachy/orangey kitchen cupboard doors. Sadly, IKEA still do not do online shopping, so today we went to IKEA (East) to get them. There are two other IKEAs in Madrid, but we haven't figured out how to get to them by public transport.
It has been well over a year since we visited IKEA East, and since then they have built a massive shopping mall, La Gavia, that connects the formerly free-standing IKEA and Carrefour buildings. It's 45 minutes on the Metro, followed by a 400 metre walk to the mall entrance, followed by an air-conditioned 400m walk to the IKEA entrance, followed by a decidedly dodgy lunch at their cafeteria and probably a kilometre to get round both floors of the store.
I should add that I have not been to a proper shopping mall since we moved to Spain, apart from one or two in England, and they don't count. I really felt like I was back in Dubai for a few minutes there.
All the walking was decidedly knackering. We queued for ages at the checkout, and then went to arrange delivery (you would not believe how heavy these boxes were). That involved another lengthy queue, and I knew from looking at their website that the delivery would cost more than a bookcase. I was quite prepared to have to wait a few days for the delivery, and was amazed when they said it would be this evening.
So, I'm quite pleased with myself. I have assembled one bookcase, without any swearing or left-over screws and whatnot. It stands in the dining area now. It's very nice, but, oh boy, isn't it blue?! I'll do the other tomorrow, in half the time because now I know how to do it.
It is very blue indeed. Blue, blue, blue.
I expect the blueness to wear off when it is full of books (I'll put the blue ones somewhere else, obviously), and MamaDuck is even now plotting to put pots of trailing ivy on top of them.
All good fun.
*This post is not sponsored by IKEA, but it should be.
A friend of ours, a life long Real Madrid supporter, invited us to join him at a nice little bar in Chamberí to watch Real play Barcelona. We were joined by two other friends, one of whom supports Barca, and the other one pretended to. I am a football agnostic. 90% of the other people in the bar supported Real Madrid.
A matanza is a social/practical event that takes place when a farmer wants to slaughter one or more of his pigs. Slaughtering a pig and dealing with the resulting skin, meat, organs and blood is not a one-man job, so the Spanish turn it into something of a party with as many willing helpers as they can manage.
It was an amazing match, which Real Madrid lost 2-6.
We decided that Real had been well and truly matanza'd.
No, this is not about smoking. It's about functionarios, those irritating people who sit behind desks in Spanish government organisations and some big businesses and take great delight in saying 'no' to you, whatever your request might me.
First of all, I remembered this morning that it would be a good idea to tell my bank that I've moved. It never occurred to me that my word on this, combined with a spot of ID would not be enough. No, I need to show them 'justificante' - justification/evidence/proof of my new address. A bill, or a rental contract or suchlike. Bugger.
And then I had to post a book to England. I've previously had problems with Correos (Spanish Post Office) about this. There is a special rate for books and periodicals, and it is substantially less than the normal rate. For some reason, counter staff at Correos offices either do not know this, or they have some humungous fiddle going on. I eventually had most of the staff at my local Post Office in Chueca trained not to mess with me on the subject of what it should cost to post a book.
Now, of course, I've moved, and I have to start the whole staff training process all over again. The first session, this morning, did not go well. I presented the Jiffy bag containing the book (the word 'libro' written on it with a 5mm thick marker pen) to the funcionario, who slapped it on the scales and pronounced it would be 9.80 Yoyos.
No, I said, it's a book. There is a special price for books, normally 3-4 Yoyos. No, there isn't, he said. Yes, there is, I replied. And so on.
Eventually he went to consult with the manager (ha, he's now sharing half of the proceeds with her) and came back and said no.
I paid the money, pointedly waited for a receipt, got his name, and will be back tomorrow with printouts from their website, ready to raise merry hell.
I promised you some picture of our new neighbourhood, so here goes. Actually, where we live is nothing like this. These picturesque / falling down / ramshackle houses are further down the road, overlooking a small park in a valley.
See the mountains in the background - still a bit of snow on them.