Sunday, 28 October 2007

Clocks Go Back

A few weeks ago I discovered that we are in a time zone known as Romance Standard Time. I'd never heard of this before, but apparently it includes Spain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. RST is GMT + 1.

Yesterday BetterArf reported that she thought she had heard a reference on the radio to the clocks going back one hour today. And when I switched on my computer the time had indeed gone back an hour. So we have an extra hour in the day, although it's likely to turn into an early night.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

El tiempo [the weather]

One of the things I was looking forward to after leaving Dubai was Proper Weather. Proper in the sense of having four well-defined seasons in a year. But not British weather which is too damn cold and too damn wet.

Madrid has a continental climate, rather than a temperate or Mediterranean one. I remember this from 'O'-level geography. The climate on the edges of continents is moderated by the warming or cooling effect of the sea. But when you are a few hundred miles from the sea you don't get this moderating effect, and the difference between winter and summer becomes quite extreme. Add to that the fact that Madrid, at 700 metres above sea level, is akin to being near the top of a mountain. It's chuffing cold!

When we arrived in August the daytime max was around 35 Celsius. But we noticed that in the shade it was considerably cooler. We've had a few rainy days, and a few cloudy days, but generally the mornings are cool until you get into the sunshine, and then it's warm. Even today, nearly at the end of October, we had sunshine this afternoon, and it was very pleasant. But the useful hours of hot sun decline each day, and last night we had to put an extra quilt on the bed. There was no sun this morning, and there was a chilly wind coming from somewhere. I made my regular Saturday morning excursion to Gran Via to get a Guardian; had I been a brass monkey I would have come home with my balls in my pocket. It was seriously cold.

So it's probably time to harass the landlord about getting the promised heater/AC installed.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Aprendizaje de español [learning Spanish]

Regular readers may recall that last summer, BetterArf and I did a 2-week intensive Spanish course in Valencia. It was hard work, but it was fun, and at the end of it we could burble away quite convincingly in basic Spanish.

Then we went back to Dubai and forgot it all. I had been hoping that being back in Spain and immersed in the language would result in some kind of learning by osmosis, but this only seems to work for babies. So, at great expense, I've signed up for Spanish classes two nights a week. BetterArf is also doing it, but in a more advanced class, 'cos she's brainy and I'm not.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Comida [food]

As you probably know, I'm quite keen on good food. But after our previous visits to Spain - Valencia and Barcelona in 2005 and 2006 - I was quite convinced that the Spanish just can't cook. I was especially disappointed when we went to a Valencian restaurant that was supposed to do the best paella in Valencia, and, by extension (because Valencia is where paella was invented), the world. And it was, how can I put this? Rubbish.

So I've been very pleasantly surprised by some of our gastronomic experiences in Madrid. Madrid is part of what they call the 'roasting zone.' This refers not to the ambient temperature, but to the fact that they do get cold weather and quite often what you want to eat is a good hot soup, stew or broth, and several slabs of roasted animal.

We've discovered menus del dia in Madrid. They probably do these in Valencia and Barcelona too, but we were too busy eating boring bocadillos (sandwiches: no butter), bad paellas and tired tapas to notice. The menu del dia is a set menu, and somebody told me that by law, every cafe/restaurant has to offer it so that the workers get some proper food inside them. Basically what it is is a choice of four or five first courses (usually soup or salads), second courses of meat or fish, a sweet or coffee, and bread and wine or beer or water or juice.

Once you've consumed a menu del dia, you are waddling about for the rest of the day and unlikely to require much more in the way of food. One of the best places we've found for this is down in the square, Cafeteria Verdoy (although we call it 'Mama's' because of the motherly nature of the owner who gives you a slap around the ear if you don't eat everything). Their menu del dia is €8.20 indoors, or €12 outside. This is incredibly good value, and they most certainly can cook. Ten or eleven Euros seems to be the average around town, although it's not necessarily as good as Mama's.

If I have breakfast, I like a chunk of tortilla with a hunk of bread (chunk an' a hunk, TM Keefieboy). BetterArf is partial to lightly toasted bread with olive oil and a tomatoey sauce on it. Spanish bread, by the way, comes in two main forms: 'bimbo' (I kid you not), is highly-processed sliced white bread with all the nutritional value of a cloud; or sticks like French baguettes, or wide sticks (called chapatta) like Italian ciabatta. A favourite breakfast of Madrileños is churros. These are sticks of deep-fried extruded batter that you dip into a mug of thick drinking chocolate. Disgusting!

What Madrid is famous for is cocido. This is basically a stew of various meats (and marrowbones), morcilla (black pudding), chorizo, veggies and garbanzos (chick peas). The first bit is the broth served up as a soup (usually enhanced with noodles or rice), followed by the meat, veg and beans. It is fantastico!

But because Madrid is the capital, you have people here from all regions of Spain, and they all bring their regional specialities with them. So we have had good paella here, and roast suckling pig, rabo te toro (braised oxtail) from I know not where, and Galician and Asturian soups and stews, and all manner of good stuff.

And if all else fails, there's always Fat Tony's fish and pie emporium near Anton Martín.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Cumpleaños Feliz!

Well, who'd have thought it: Keefieboy hits the big five-oh! And BetterArf has bought him Terry Pratchett's latest, 'Making Money', which may contain some useful tips.

I expect an exciting day is planned, culminating in watching England win the Rugby World Cup!

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Madrid Pictures

OK, you've waited long enough.
Here's a bunch of pictures of Madrid.

The bear and the strawberry tree (El Oso y El Madroño)
are the symbol of Madrid. I don't know why - I haven't
seen any live bears or strawberry trees kicking around.
I'm not even sure that strawberries grow on trees.
Whatever, it's a nice statue on the edge of Puerta del Sol.

This is Plaza Mayor, a grand arcaded square. The geezer
on the horse in the middle is King Felipe III - the statue
was made in 1616.

El Catedral de Almudena: building began in 1883 and
finished in 1993! You can see the northern mountains
in the background on the left.

As in any old city, it's always worth looking up at the
tops of buildings: this is where the architects have their
fun when the client isn't looking.

This is part of the view from our terrace. The building
with the green roof is Torrés Colón, designed by Antonio Lamela Martinez - I don't know what he was on when
he did this, but it was the 70s. The things in the sky?
Spanish aerobatic team. They're always whizzing about.

Another bloke on a horse. This statue is in Puerta del Sol
and represents King Carlos III

Our apartment faces due east, so we always get to see
the sunrise. And we also get to see the sunset as it
casts a glorious golden glow over the city.

Monday, 15 October 2007


It could be to do with my advancing years (I'll be 50 on the 20th of this month if anyone wants to congratulate, commiserate or just pop round for a caña*), or maybe I've just got used to it after more than ten years in the Middle East, but pointless bureaucracy doesn't drive me nuts like it used to. However, I had an experience a few weeks ago that left me wanting to strangle somebody. And it wasn't them greasy wops either, it was the Brits.

Shortly after we arrived in Madrid, BetterArf had the misfortune to have her bag stolen. A bit like Hermione Granger's bag in the Deathly Hallows, it contained everything a sensible lady could ever want or need; money, camera, toyboy, memory stick, mobile phone, British Passport. Because BetterArf is at work during the pitifully small number of hours that the British Consulate deigns to open its doors to the public, I was delegated to submit the application for a new passport.

Now, I don't know if other countries do this, but Britain requires that you submit 2 photographs, one of which is countersigned on the back by someone who has known you for at least two years. And not just anyone - it cannot be a relative, and it has to be a 'professional' person (not to be confused with a 'professional person') - something like a lawyer or a bank manager or a Justice of the Peace. And it must have a valid UK passport.

Well, we know very few people in Spain, and certainly nobody here has known us for more than a couple of months. So BetterArf got the Director of the language school where she works to countersign, and wrote a note on the form explaining the circumstances.

Earlie one morning, I show up at the Consulate, which is on the fourth floor of a very dismal office block. There is a straggly queue almost bursting out of the door. I stand in this for a bit, and then an armed security guard with a list starts going down the line, checking people off the list. It seems they all have appointments. Bugger! She got to me, and of course she spikka no Ingless. After a while she calls her colleague over. He speaks a little English, realises I'm not trying to claim political asylum in the UK and sends me through the X-ray machine and lets me in.

When I get to the counter I present the sheaf of documents that BetterArf has given me. The youth peruses them, and spots that the counter-signatory says she has only known BetterArf for a couple of months. He says this is no good, we will have to get it signed by someone in Dubai or the UK. I protest - this will take ages to do and she needs a passport so she can get paid and pay tax and be legal etc. Foolishly, I suggest that we'll complete another form, and lie about the length of time the countersignatory has known BetterArf.

'We do check, you know.' He says. 'We don't give British passports to just anybody.'
I'm kind of offended by this; they don't 'give' passports to anybody at all - we pay twice what anyone else in Europe has to pay, and in my experience no countersignatory has ever been contacted.

'Hmm', says the counter person, 'does your wife have a bank account in Spain?'
'Yes, she does.'
'Then get the Bank Manager to sign it.' I can't help it. I snigger.
'You're laughing? Why are you laughing, I'm trying to help you and you're laughing.' Get a grip Keefie.
'I'm sorry, it's what I do. But I am amused by the idea that you will trust the word of a bank manager who I guarantee has never set eyes upon my wife.' I don't add that the bank manager will certainly not be a British passport holder, and decide not to embark on an exposition of the general untrustworthiness of banks (in my cynical head).

'I'll go and check.' He says. He goes. He comes back. He checks on the computer. BetterArf is there; all the details from her previous passport application in Dubai.

'Right. That'll probably be ok. Give me your credit card.'
'Don't have one, got cash.'
'We prefer credit cards.'
'Yes, but I don't have one, I've got actual cash money.'
'Hmmm. Ok. Come back in a fortnight.

*small beer

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Back Online

Ever since leaving Dubai, I have been at the mercy of internet cafes for keeping in touch with the world. I have not enjoyed the experience: I like more space around me; I like keyboards that work and whose keys have identifying letters printed on them; I like not having to listen to people making phone calls to Argentina; and I like the option of being able to use browsers that are not made by Micro$oft.

The main Spanish phone company, Telefonica is, like most phone companies everywhere, not well liked by most of its customers. I had an extremely hard time even becoming a customer, and it's all my fault of course, because my Spanish is no good.

I had thought it would be a simple matter to just go to their head office, pick up a form, and complete it at my leisure. But no, that's way too simple. The armed guard at the door told me I had to phone this number - he wrote it down for me. So I phoned the number and could make no sense whatsoever of the flurry of machine Spanish that greeted me, so I gave up. Dejected.

A few days later I decided to try again. I marched straight past the numerous security guards at Telefonica HQ and made a bee-line for one of the friendly-looking young ladies at the reception
'Hablar inglés, senorita?'
'Of course!'
Whoopee! I told her what I wanted, and she directed me to another reception desk, staffed by four more armed guards and an x-ray machine. I'm probably exaggerating when I describe them as 'armed', but they do carry a baton and handcuffs, which seems a bit over-the-top to me. One of them wants my passport and after a lot of messing about on a computer issues me with a security badge. Then I have to wait 20 minutes until another guard arrives to escort me upstairs. This is turning out to be the most bizarre experience - all I want is a bloody telephone and broadband!

I'm shown into the office of a lady who speaks no English, but she phones someone who does speak English, and I speak to her. She wants my NIE number, or a passport number, and she wants bank account details. Now I wasn't expecting any of this - I was still working on the assumption that I would get an application form to take away and fill in at home - so I can't give her the info she needs. It's a pointless exercise. I manage to end the call, and then the lady in the office phones somebody else. This one has better English, but it's still futile because I have not brought the required info. In the end I'm pleading to be let out. I just want to go somewhere and drink beer.

I was reading George Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia' at the time. During the Spanish Civil War, Orwell was involved in a kind of seige of the Telephone Exchange in Barcelona. It was only when I read an appendix at the back of the book in which the Telephone Exchange was referred to as The Telefonica Building that the reason for the strict security became apparent - they thought I was some kind of armed insurgent bent on bringing down the Republic by trying to do subversive things on the Internet.

Ah, the Internet! So I went to an Internet Caff and visited Telefonica's website. I managed to get as far as the first page of the registration process, submitted the form, and was told that there was already a phone installed at my address. Bloody hell.

In desperation, I asked the property agent who'd found us our flat if he could help. No problemmo, gimme the details and it'll be installed in 2-3 weeks. Well, 2-3 weeks didn't impress
me, but I had no choice but to wait. Two weeks later I got an emailed order confirmation from my pal: the order had just been placed that day. I decided that I would go and kill him the next day, but was forestalled by a phone call from a Telefonica engineer asking when I would like him to come. Jokingly, I said 'manana', and was pleasantly surprised when he said 'ok, what time?'

So, if your Spanish is up to it, and you live two blocks away from Telefonica world HQ, you can actually get a phone and internet installed in one or two days.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Greetings from Madrid

Hola! A mere two months after arriving in Madrid, Keefieboy finally gets around to setting up a new blog. In case you have not come across Adventures in Dubai, I lived in the insane emirate of Dubai for almost thirteen years before coming to Madrid.

So, what is this blog going to be about? Probably the same old same old - (hopefully) interesting things that happen to me and BetterArf as we adjust to life in Spain. Not likely to be much whingeing about broken transport and social systems, because they seem to work just fine.

Why 'Probably Madrid'? Well, that was the destination city on the labels of all the boxes that we shipped from Dubai - we were not actually sure where we would end up...