Monday, 24 December 2007

Christmas Eve [Nochebuena]

It's been a busy few days. I developed a stonkingly horrible cold, probably due to walking around in the miserable rainy weather. But I'm better now. A couple of days ago we had an evening of carols, mulled wine and mince pies. The latter item was a slight challenge - they're not readily available in Madrid. I had asked Offspring to bring a jar of mincemeat from England, but he claims he never got the message. Fortunately, there's a shop called 'The Things You Miss' that sells mundane British brands that nobody else stocks, and so we got two jars of Robertson's mincemeat and some ready-made pastry. I spent a happy couple of hours building and baking 24 mince pies. (In case you don't know: it's a small pie containing 'mincemeat' - there's no actual meat in this stuff, it's made from fruit, dried peel, suet and sugar and it's sweet, lumpy and gooey).

Yesterday's mission was to buy a suckling pig. I'd noticed that El Corte Ingles's price had shot up from about 12 Euros a kilo to 20, so we headed off to the market instead and got one for 14 Euros a kilo. I'll be cooking this later today: we're having the big feast early on Christmas Eve, rather than starting at midnight as the Spanish do!

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

British Offendednes Level: Not Bothered Really

Which of these words offends you most?


The good old BBC got its knickers in a twist recently when it tried to censor the lyrics of a very well-known Christmas song, A Fairytale Of New York by the late Kirsty McColl and The Pogues. But only on Radio One, the yoof-oriented channel.

"You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot,
Happy Christmas your arse I thank God it's all o'er."

The offending word? 'Faggot(s)'. Meanings:
1) A Welsh meatball - made from unspeakable bits of offal.
2) Small sticks used for kindling (lighting fires).
3) Homosexual men. Commonly used in the USA, barely used in the UK, but understood.

Some politically correct arshole at the Beeb decided that the use of the word 'faggot' was homophobic, and ordered that the word should be bleeped or faded out. An avalanche of response on the BBC's website caused the decision to be reversed in a matter of hours. I despair. This song first came out in 1987, and has been played repeatedly since then with nary a complaint. Homophobic? My bottom!

The Offspring Has Landed!

Our one and only Offspring arrived yesterday, a mere nine hours and twenty minutes late. Here's the story.

0730: awoken by my phone ringing. Marvellous - this'll be Offspring letting us know he's at the airport and hasn't missed his flight. I was half right. It was Offspring. He was at home. He'd missed his flight. He'll try to book another one.

0800: to reassure myself, I check the EasyJet website: there are flights available, the 2020 arrival is 110 pounds. Every flight after that for the next fortnight is 140 quid and upward.

1130: I've heard nothing from Offspring. I text him. He doesn't have internet at home. He has it on his phone, but is unable to complete the transaction. He is waiting for an Internet Caff to open.

1430: still no news. He calls me: can't do it from an internet caff. Can I do it for him? Certainly I can, but I don't have a credit card. We do something inadvisable, and by 1500 his ticket is booked and he has the reference number.

1900: I set off for the airport. I've only been there once, our inbound flight when we arrived in August. So I don't know how long it takes on the Metro or anything. As it happens, once you get to the start of Line 8 at Nuevos Ministerios, it's about 12 minutes to T1, 2, 3. So I have plenty of time to spare in which to complete the extremely long walk from T2 (where the Metro station really is) to T1.

2040: Offspring emerges from baggage reclaim/customs/dog-sniffing. We go to the Metro station and arrive at Nuevos Ministerios at 2120. As it happens, BetterArf works some of the time at NM, and finishes at 2130, so we broke our journey there and went to meet her. We took a bus down to Chuecaland, had some dinner, and then introduced Offspring to the joys of our bijou piso-ette.

1130 the next day. He always could sleep for England. Now he's doing it for Spain! I'll probably wake the bugger up soon: we have sights to see and shopping to do.

Monday, 17 December 2007

General Drivel [Tontería General]

We had a lovely surprise yesterday. Two days ago, BetterArf had had a number of calls on her mobile, from 'no caller ID'. She was unable to answer them at the time because she was in a class, and of course could not call back because the number was not identified. Having established that the caller wasn't our son (the most likely candidate and if he couldn't get through to his mum he would have called me), she got this idea in her head that it could be Karamah, a long-standing friend and former colleague from Dubai, who had mentioned that she would be whizzing through Madrid at some point in December. Long story short, it was Karamah, and we went to meet her for coffee yesterday teatime in the Northern Boondocks of Madrid. It was really, really wonderful to see her again.

The lift in our building decided to take the weekend off. It packed up on Friday afternoon, when it was too late to get the repairman out, and so we had to do the 150 steps once on Friday and twice each on Saturday and Sunday. We are just sooooooo fit!

You'll be pleased to know the lift is working again now.

Tomorrow morning I am heading off to the airport to meet our son who is flying in from Londres. He's staying until Dec 30, so we'll have a proper English family Christmas - BetterArf says it wouldn't be fair to make him wait until Jan 6 for his prezzie! And on the 27th we have a couple of very long-standing friends coming over from Liverpool, again until the 30th. Fortunately our upstairs neighbour will be away for this period, and has very kindly asked us to look after his flat.

Madrid is enjoying its coldest day of the winter so far. Apparently snow fell on the Sierras, and the overnight temperature in town was mostly -3°C, and -4°C for a short time. We were tucked up nice and warm in bed and missed it, but there was frost on the rooftops this morning.

Brrr. Apparently it gets really cold at the end of January. I can't wait.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Nativity Scenes [Belénes]

We went to look at a spectacular belén today. It's in a building on Puerta del Sol - I think it's the Town Hall, but I could well be wrong. Nativity scenes are immensely popular in Spain, and a lot of work and detail goes into them. Well worth standing in a queue for! This particular scene apparently has more than 400 figures in it.

There's one figure missing from this scene: the baby Jesús won't be putting in an appearance until the 25th:

We had kind of planned to make our own belén, but a shortage of time (and money!) put the mockers on that. I did start a little minimalist one...

But then it turned into a shrine to commercialism!

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Sad News [Noticias Tristes]

It was announced yesterday that Terry Pratchett, my all-time favourite author, has early-onset Alzheimer's.

An embuggerance indeed.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Cheap Air Fares

Air fares have been on my mind recently. A few months ago, we were contemplating flying to the UK for a party on the 29th December. Checking on the interweb, I found that we could fly with Easyjet from Madrid to Gatwick for €26 each - and slightly more to come back. But we didn't book it then, and watched in dismay as the fares rose dramatically, rapidly wiping out any budget that we may have had. Obviously, Christmas/New Year is a peak time for airlines. If you want to fly from Madrid to Liverpool on January 2, it will cost you a staggering €268 with Easyjet!

So, forget the holiday season, go for the January sales if you can. From about the 8th Jan, prices plummet. Ryanair will get you there (or within 500kms, depending on weather, and obviously your baggage is going to Stavanger) for 1 centimo. Plus taxes, of course, which will add about €22.50. Easyjet are a much more honest company; their advertised fares include taxes, so €22.83 is the lowest fare during this period (the flight is 33 centimos, the rest is tax). Given the choice between Ryanair and Easyjet, the latter gets my vote every time. Even if it does cost 32 centimos more.

The moral, obviously: book early!

Sunday, 9 December 2007


For any non-Brits reading this, you might not be familiar with the peculiarly British tradition of Pantomime. Briefly, this is a form of comic theatre performed at Christmastime; alledgedly for children. It involves men pretending to be women, slapstick comedy, 'he's behind you' scenes, singing, dancing, kids being humiliated on stage and lots of other stuff. Typical stories are Cinderella, Treasure Island, Beauty and the Beast, Dick Whittington, Treasure Island and others. The scripts are normally butchered heavily to include local content and current affairs.

During our time in Dubai we have usually been involved in one way or another with the Pantos produced by Dubai Drama Group. I've been in one and helped design/construct/paint sets for many and operated sound for one; BetterArf has been in two or three and has written and directed one. Some years we were not involved, but we always made a point of going to see them.

There was one slightly tragic year. We were not involved at all but we had our tickets for the final performance (in those days DDG were able to sell out 11 performances, including 2 weekends with matinees on Thursday and Friday). Imagine our disappointment/pissed-offness when we arrived at the venue at 8.30 to find that the audience was just leaving. The show had started at 6.30. We had mis-read the info on the tickets, and missed it. Bugger!

Moving to Madrid, we were pleased to find a Brit-ish amateur theatre outfit, The Madrid Players. As soon as they resumed their activities after the summer break, we went along to say hello. Their first show of the season was going to be a Panto, Cinderella. There was no way that BetterArf could be involved: her work keeps her busy until 9.30 each weekday night. I had a shot at auditioning and was not surprised to not get a part. I did go along to the first set-building session, but they don't seem to do sets as I understand them: a few bits of painted cardboard seems to be adequate. Hmm. So I didn't go to any more set-building sessions, but I was keen to see the show - I know they have some very talented actors there - and to see how the painted cardboard things might work out.

This evening BetterArf called out from the depths of the bathroom: 'find out when the Panto's on, organise tickets!' So, off I go to the Madrid Players' blog. It's on on the 7th, 8th and 9th of December! We fecking missed it! Damn.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Christmas in Madrid, part four [navidad en Madrid, separése cuatro]

(I wrote this a week ago but forgot to post it!)...

BetterArf is in the middle of an effective four-day weekend (Thursday was a public holiday, and then she had a 'puerte' or bridging day, and now it's Saturday). So on Thursday we visited the Plaza Mayor Christmas Market. It was pretty busy. I expressed admiration for a Santa hat that I saw someone wearing, and before I knew it she had bought me one. It's a red cap with white fur edging and a red conical spiral spring with a bobble on the end - very tasteful. She also got herself a white furry halo. When we left the market and ventured into other parts of town where the Christmas spirit was a bit less evident, we were greeted by smiles and smirks from many of the grown-ups, and cries of '¡mira, Papa Noel!' from quite lot of the kiddiewinkles. Spanish kids really can pronounce that upside-down exclamation mark, by the way.

Papa Noel and his angel companion had a great time just walking all over Madrid. At the Palace of Telecommunications (head Post Office, also known as 'Our Lady of Telecommunications' because of its resemblance to quite a large cathedral) we saw quite a long queue - at least half an hour's worth, according to the signs, and went to investigate what they were queueing for. It turned out to be a very large and detailed Beléne - nativity scene. Folks were prepared to wait in line for over half an hour to get a good look, and most of them didn't have kids!

Yesterday BetterArf very kindly retrieved our trunk full of Christmas stuff from the trastero (storage room). Naturally it was at the back, at the bottom, so everything else had to be moved to get at it. But I now have my famous Christmas compilation album, and so I am a happy bunny.

Christmas in Madrid, part 3 [Navidad en Madrid, sepárese tres]

I've been reading up on the traditions and customs of a Spanish Christmas, and it's a good job I did, because I might have missed some of it. Christmas in Spain is not the wimpy two-day affair that we are accustomed to - it goes on until January 6th!

Here's an outline:
22nd December: the drawing of 'El Gordo' - the Christmas Lottery with about €600 million to be shared out.

24th December: Nochebuena - the 'Good Night', Christmas Eve. Families enjoy a feast in the evening/night/early morning - seafood, suckling pig, lamb or turkey, turrón (nougat) and marzipan, all washed down with buckets of Cava (Spanish sparkling wine). Adults exchange gifts, kids may get a token gift.

25th December: Christmas Day. Everything is shut, and probably everybody is sleeping/recovering from the night before. And then another feast.

28th December: Day of the Innocents. Practical jokes abound, like All Fools' Day.

31st December: New Year's Eve. Traditionally, you have to eat one grape as each of the midnight bells rings. This is easier said than done: Spanish grapes have seeds, and eating twelve of the blighters in twelve seconds without choking is quite an achievement. You get one month of good luck for each grape successfully consumed. And then there's a bit of partying.

5th/6th January: Los Reyes - Three Kings. Spanish kids write letters to the Three Kings asking for Playstations etc. The Kings arrive in your town on the evening of the 5th: they will be parading through Madrid from Retiro Park to Plaza Mayor, probably on camels. The Kings distribute tonnes of sweets as they go. On the 6th, kids finally get their prezzies, and they get to eat part of a special ring-shaped cake called Roscón de los Reyes. If they're lucky they will find a plastic toy that has been baked into the cake, hopefully before they swallow it.

As if this wasn't enough, Madrid is doing some other stuff. There's a show near Opéra Metro on the 15th to mark the 'official' start of Christmas. In Plaza de Colón there's a sound and light show every night from the 22nd. There's a couple of outdoor ice-rinks. There are belénes (nativity scenes) all over town. And of course, the fabulous lights on the main shopping streets. Apparently Madrid spends more on Christmas lights than any other European capital, and Spain spends more than any other European country. And it's worth every centimo.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Navidad en Madrid, sepárese dos [Christmas in Madrid, part two]

This is near Our Lady of Telecommunications:

El Corte Inglés pulls out a few more stops:

Angels around Puerta del Sol:

Flying carpets on Hortaleza and Fuencarral:

Yer actual Christmas tree in Sol:

Flocks of Idontknowwhats on Gran Vía:

Some cute polar bears in a shop window - don't know their names:

And what Christmas is complete without three kings and at least one camel?

Monday, 3 December 2007

Navidad en Madrid [Christmas in Madrid]

Despite being very-nearly-an-Atheist (just coming to the end of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins) I do love the idea and expression of Christmas. Having been somewhat deprived of this during the last fourteen years in the Middle East, I'm like a kid in a candy store now. When it comes to Fiestas, Madrid does not stint. Here are some pictures that I've taken around town on the last few days/nights:

This Christmas thing started a few weeks ago when I looked down into Plaza de Chueca and saw this: a couple of cherry-picker trucks and discs of coloured plexiglass.

These delightful things began working as soon as they were erected: the sun shining through them produced areas of coloured light on the ground: a white dog walking across the square could become a red or green or purple dog. Marvellous! Very gay! (If you don't live in Madrid, you probably don't know that Chueca is the gay centre of Madrid).

Wandering through town a few days ago, I happened upon this:

'Cortylandia' - El Corte Inglés enticing the parents of gazillions of kiddiewinkles to spend money they haven't got. It's magnificent. There are dozens of animatronic figures whizzing about on this, pretending to sing songs that are blasted out through a seriously big P.A. system.

Saturday last, BetterArf and I decided to meet up up at Plaza Mayor. No particular reason, just that we haven't been up there for a while. It's amazing what you can fit into this square. Right now, they've fitted in a huge Christmas Market:

You can buy Christmas trees, turf, coloured sand and bark to make your Nativity scene with, myriad plaster figures to populate it with (idolatry!), wigs, masks and all manner of weird stuff.

Sometimes you can hardly move for Living Statues in Madrid: we particularly liked this one...

An odd scene: this Santa is clearly Asian, while the guy on the left is English...make of it what you will.