Celebrating Thanksgiving in Spain

Today is Thanksgiving.  But of course it’s not a holiday in Spain.  The usual busy day with classes, a meeting, getting up early and coming home late.  But friends have sent text messages throughout the day wishing me a happy holiday.  In the reading group that I hold every week here at home, I made a coffee cake and put out my little figures of pilgrims and Indians, to everyone’s delight.  In class, I tell students about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and the story of the first feast, how the Indians helped the pilgrims learn about the crops that could flourish in the New World, and how the pilgrims invited the Indians for a huge meal after the first successful harvest.

And anyway, who could feel sad today?  Our festivities are just about to get started.  For years, we’ve been celebrating this holiday on Saturday.  We drive up to spend the weekend in a small village 158 kms northwest of Madrid, in a huge old house.  This is the town where my father-in-law was born, and the house has so far stayed in the family.  It’s undergone plenty of changes in the past 30 years since I first went there!  Instead of bouquets of hot water bottles hanging from hooks on the kitchen ceiling, we now have central heating.  There’s a pool table in the cavernous living room, the delight of our grown-up sons and their friends.  Everyone can take showers without fear of running out of hot water.  There’s plenty of pinewood for the tiled fireplace in the kitchen/dining room, the same fireplace where my husband’s great-grandmother used to cook.  This is everyone’s favorite spot to sit and talk for hours, waxing philosophical – even the quietest people seem to open up around a fire – , roasting chestnuts in the evening when everyone is still full of turkey.  The boys’ first task is to go down the chilly hall to the old stables and bring in firewood and pine cones, which make great kindling.  A fire always keeps you busy:  adding a log, shifting half-burned ones, using the bellows if you’re feeling energetic.  The house can sleep 17 people comfortably although, because the house has been renovated throughout its long life, it’s a bit labyrinthine, and newcomers often get lost going down one long hall or another to their bedrooms.

The village itself is small and far from picturesque but it too has improved greatly.  Long ago, when we’d leave on a Sunday to go back to Madrid, we used to take our trash out to the permanently-steaming dump by the cemetery wall.  Now there are recycling bins in most of the plazas.  In the summer, there are fiestas and concerts held in the remains of the 13th century church across the street which, roofless, has been turned into a mini cultural center by the town hall .  Against one outside wall of the tower is the fountain, built in the times of Carlos III, that supplied the village’s water, the spigots still visible and in working order.   Apart from the village shop that we’ve been going to for years, there’s now a small supermarket.  But we still buy almost everything from Carlos and his wife.  Their hours are very convenient, as they live in the back of the store, and we enjoy saying hello and asking about our respective families.  Our sons used to go there by themselves when they were small to buy the bread and the best magdalenas in Spain; they always came home with a lollipop or a piece of gum.  Now they go there to buy beer for the weekend and don’t get any candy.

What hasn’t changed is the church tower, visible from the house and loaded down with storks’ nests.  These, by the way, can weigh up to 100 kilos. It’s true that, with global warming, the winters aren’t as cold and the storks don’t migrate south anymore, so the clicking sound of their long beaks accompanies us all year now.   An oddity in this town is an ugly monolith commemorating 6 locals who perished in the Spanish-American war in 1898.  The monument gives only the names of the six fallen, with no further information.  Six sons of that tiny village.  One can’t help wondering how they got from the middle of Castille to Cuba.  Perhaps they left seeking their fortunes, as so many others did.   We pass this on our walks into the surrounding pine forests where we go Sunday mornings to stretch our legs before returning to the city.

The high brick and stucco walled garden offers us total privacy from the outside world.  The two fig trees my brother-in-law planted many years ago are now full-grown, providing shade and fruit.  The ivy and the grapevine now almost manage to make a canopy over the iron beams that someone put up to create a sort of gazebo effect.  The well, covered with a heavy piece of granite, remains, as does the stone basin at its foot that served as a pirate boat for many years.

And that’s where we celebrate our semi-traditional Thanksgiving dinner every year, escaping our tiny apartment where our dining room table squishily seats six.

The guest list has varied over these past thirty (!) years.  When we were younger, people came and went in our lives more fluidly.  But now we have our core group that has remained fairly stable over the past few years, and everyone contributes to the feast.  There’s my American friend from Ohio, my Irish friend and his Spanish wife, my Spanish husband and star chef, and myself.  My sister has joined us several times, flying in from London for the weekend, thanks to low-cost flights.  And our sons have their own group of steadfast friends who claim that Thanksgiving is one of the high points of their year now too.

The menu is traditional, fairly straightforward.  One of the rules we established a long time ago was that everyone could bring whatever they loved and remembered from their own family childhood celebrations.  No complaints allowed.  If you don’t like it, you simply don’t eat it.  There’s always plenty of other things.  My friend Diana brings the pies.  She takes the day off work to get up early and cook up chunks of fresh pumpkin and make those lard crusts.  She also brings along sweet potatoes, again, following a family recipe with brown sugar.  My husband is in charge of the kitchen.  He plans at least three types of vegetables to go with the two small (by American standards) turkeys.  I make a signature dip with cream cheese and cockles and lemon, and my stuffing is bread crumbs, celery, loads of butter and herbs.  And Don, the Irishman, brings a cake of his own invention.  He usually has picked and frozen blackberries so lately the cake is a hard crust, the berries, and cream that is supposed to be whipped.  But since Don and his wife are always the last to arrive, just a couple  of hours before we sit down to eat, the cream seems to rebel against the drive and despite his best intentions, he can never ever get it to whip.  This has been going on for 14 years.  The same problem, the same explanation, and puzzlement, and the same solution which is to simply pour the cream over the tart and get it in the fridge in hopes that it will solidify.

As for the youngsters, most of them still aren’t working or, if they are, they certainly don’t make much money.  So their material contribution is a bottle or two of wine or a trip to the store to get things we have forgotten, extra napkins, paper towels.  Their main contribution, however, is essential:  labor/manpower.

How else would we manage to get the old oven out from the stables and into a corner of the kitchen so that Carlos can cook up two turkeys at the same time?  Who else could manage to shift the massive table in front of the fireplace so that we have room for the little wooden kitchen table?  They’re the ones in charge of keeping the fire high and eventually adding charcoal so that there will be plenty of embers to keep the food warm as it comes out of kitchen.  The best part of all, though, is the congenial and willing group that gathers around the table, close to the fire, a bag of sprouts or potatoes or French onions on hand, to peel all these vegetables while sharing conversation.

Lunch is always very late, around 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon.  But who cares?  No one is in any hurry, and there’s always plenty of wonderful chorizo, salchichón and Serrano ham and Manchego cheese to tide everyone over.  A new speciality, introduced a couple of years ago, are the mollejas, giblets.   Preparation is a lengthy process, as they must be cleaned first, then boiled and stir-fried in oil and garlic, with a dash of parsley.  The entire kilo disappears in short order, juices dipped up with chunks of fresh bread. Eventually platters of thinly sliced turkey, earthenware dishes filled with stuffing, pots with onions and sprouts or ratatouille are brought out from the kitchen and set down over the coals supposedly to keep warm.  A huge rectangular dish, so large that it has to be washed out in the shower down the hall, is filled with potatoes.  The table is set.  Someone has been assigned to pick some ivy from the yard outside and set it artistically in the center, along with little figures of a Pilgrim and an Indian couple and a few pine cones.  The wine is uncorked, and everyone politely stands behind a chair, waiting for the go ahead.  Then everyone picks up a plate and goes to the fireplace to stack their plates.  Eventually, we toast the good cheer and pleasant company and dig in.

Everyone sleeps late on Sunday, then it’s off for a walk to stretch our legs and pretend that we can work off all the food ingested the previous day.  It’s lovely walking through the cold empty village to the surrounding fields, heading down dirt beaten paths towards pine copses and low hills, past fallow fields.  The scenery is gray, brown, ice blue and pine green, low-key.

We’re not out long.  We have to get back for an early lunch.  The crowd makes short work of leftovers, once again piling plates high.  Then it’s time to close up.   Small packages of extras – a piece of pie, a tangerine or two, a few madalenas, a loaf of good pueblo bread – are made up.  The dishwasher is on one more time.  Beds are stripped and damp towels gathered up for washing.  People go through the house checking for their cellphones, books, reading glasses, notebooks and pens, keys.  Overnight bags are piled up in the downstairs hall, the bathrooms are again bare of myriad toilet kits.  The pool table and futbolín are covered over with their dustsheets.

A final check, shutters closed, lights turned off.  The rooms are empty; no one seems to have forgotten anything.  We exchange hugs and kisses and thanks for yet another wonderful Thanksgiving celebration, pile into our respective cars, and start the ride back to the city.

In forty minutes, the snow-capped mountains of Guadarrama come into view.  In one hour, we’re through the tunnel, the distant lights of the city sparkling ahead of us.

Post by Clea.

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The Sorolla Museum in Madrid

Are you fed up with listening to bad news every morning on the radio?  Suffering anxiety over rising unemployment rates?  Do you think you’ll have a breakdown if you hear about one more cutback or strike?  Take a break from it all to visit the Sorolla Museum.  Two steps take you through the iron gate open in the high brick wall into an oasis of peace and quiet.  The garden, designed by Sorolla, is a profusion of vine-draped pergolas and walls tiled in bright ceramic of blues and yellows and greens.  A shallow pool styled on the Andaluz Moorish pattern, long and rectangular, with gentle jets of spray arching into the water, invites the visitor to sit for a while on one of the benches set under shady trees.  Ironically, it was here, painting in the garden, that Sorolla suffered the stroke that incapacitated him for the last three years of his life.  A sad end to a short but productive life.

The museum is housed in the painter’s home.  The place has been given a bit of a facelift, with a new ticket area and small bookshop in an inner patio, but the general layout is the same as it ever was.  One walks up the same wooden stairs to get to the top floor to the same reassuring creaks.  It was comforting to hear, a homey gemütlich sound I remembered from many visits of pilgrimage to this favorite place full of favorite paintings.

A photograph in each room shows the original use and design of the space:  the showroom where those paintings that were for sale were exhibited, his studio with its heavy wooden desk and a settee draped with wine-colored velvet curtains creating a completely enclosed space where one imagines him retiring for a solitary siesta, the dining room decorated with garlands and portraits of his wife and daughters, the large airy reception area where he received guests.  On this visit, the collection has been changed around to make room for a temporary exhibit on the top floor.  This is dedicated to his wife, Clotilde, and is what brought me to the museum once again.

Sorolla did everything expected of a young painter of his time.  He studied in Rome.  He denounced social injustice with his depictions of poor girls being taken to the cities to work as prostitutes (Otra Margarita”, “Trata de blancas”).  He painted society portraits, which was a lucrative business at the time, as well as portraits of some of Spain’s most forward-thinking intellectuals, writers and scientists.  With his nine-year commission for the Spanish Hispanic Society, he travelled extensively throughout Spain to study age-old customs that were fast dying out, and observe traditional costumes.  But perhaps his most popular and well-known paintings are light-filled scenes of naked carefree children bathing in the sun-dappled sea of the Valencian coast, their mothers waiting with white sheets to bundle them up in.  Women adjust the straps of loose tunics slatted by the bright sun streaming through wooden blinds, in paintings with titles such as “Saliendo del bañoor Despues del baño”.  A fisherman’s wife stands staring out to sea, one arm wrapped around a sleeping child, her other hand shielding her eyes against the long shadows of the late evening sun.  These golden paintings contrast with the cooler white light of his northern scenes.  Here, elegant society women in the white dresses of the period walk along the beaches of northern Spain, holding wide-brimmed hats against the wind, carrying lace-trimmed parasols or stand staring out at the waves.

People think of Sorolla as an easy painter, rapidly filling canvases almost as the mood took him.  Looking at La siesta, for example, we feel as if we have just returned from a walk ourselves to find the four girls sprawled comfortably in the cool grass, resting in the stifling afternoon heat.  But the truth is that Sorolla studied every detail beforehand so that, once he started painting, he knew exactly what he wanted to depict, where he wanted the figures to stand, how he wanted the light to play on the scene.  In his downstairs studio there are a series of tiny studies, several of them recognizable in the larger finished works.  One in particular caught my eye:  a toddler at the edge of the waves, its plump short body full of a mixture of apprehension and fascination at the moving water, clearly visible even in this rough miniature study. Deceptively simple.

Going up those creaky stairs, one comes to a landing backed by two narrow arched openings separated by a column.  Glassed in, these interior windows overlook the studio the visitor has left below.  The ceilings in this house are tremendously high, especially by today’s cramped standards, and this landing-pause provides a more comfortable view of the paintings hanging high up on the walls below.  Above the arches hangs a large portrait of Sorolla’s three children, painted in 1908.  This is one of many painted throughout the years.  Devoted to his family, there are numerous portraits of his children, separately or together.  They were a close-knit family, and he used them all as subjects.

But the love of his life was Clotilde.  They married in 1888.  Here, filling the top floor, are photographs of her as a young woman taken by her father, a studio photographer and Sorolla’s first employer, drawings and quick studies done by Sorolla of Clotilde reading, sewing, playing with the children.  A study in gray, and three large portraits from 1920 invariably show Clotilde graceful in any pose.  Wrapped warm in a Twenties-style coat and hat or dressed for the evening in black or leaning against the balustrade looking out at the sea or clothed in the brilliant white fashion of 1910, her gaze is direct, wise and serene.

A glass case in the back room contains some of the letters that she and her husband exchanged throughout the years.  Apparently, she loved to sit beside him while he painted and, as he became more successful and travelled more often, she writes longingly of the simpler days when they were together as a family, with fewer visitors, fewer obligations, able to take walks together after a day’s work.  As for Sorolla, he writes, “How unhappy I would have been if I hadn’t loved you the way I do.”  Not “if I hadn’t met you” – as if it were all fate, something he had no choice over.

Sorolla never recovered from his stroke, and never painted again after 1920.  He lived on for three more years, Clotilde always by his side.  There is a photograph of them together, taken in 1921.  Sorolla, seated in an armchair and looking tired and old (he was only 60 when he died in 1923) looks at the photographer.  Clotilde is sitting on the arm of the chair, absently looking off at something beyond our vision.  Her chin leans gently on her husband’s head, and she has one arm around his shoulders, barely touching his neck, while her left hand holds his wrist.  Tenderness, concern, protection is present in every line of her body as she sits close to him.

Sorolla died at his daughter’s house in 1923, aged only 60.  He produced a prodigious amount of work, and was famous in his lifetime.  His murals for the Hispanic Society are gargantuan works, full of detail and color of a past time.  But I’m convinced that Sorolla’s heart was in his depictions of the quiet moment.  In capturing a scene, he transmits so much more:  the smell of a trailing jasmine, a person’s anxiety as she awaits the return of someone dear, the abstractedly philosophical thoughts that flood everyone as they look at to sea, the pure joy of sun-warmed water on one’s back.  His painting, titled simply Madre”, shows a mother and her child lying together in a large bed, only their dark heads contrasting with the white of the covers and the pillows and the baby’s bonnet.  The mother, half-asleep, is looking at the child with that mixture of love and exhaustion that any parent can identify with.  The painting could well be titled, “Asleep At Last”.  Small moments, nothing momentous happens, but those are the ones that make up our lives and memories.

The special exhibition on Clotilde closed in mid-October but now there’s another one centered on his garden paintings, mostly executed at the end of his career.  Luminous, whitewashed, brimming with colorful flowers, these were painted for the pure joy of the scene, with no looming deadlines to be met.

Post by Clea.

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The Statues of Madrid

Legend has it that, when the goddess Cibeles reached the crossroads of calle Alcalá with the Castellana, she fell in love with the view and decided to stay there forever. There she sits in her stone chariot, the key to the city in her hand.  The lions who pulled her from place to place remain faithfully tied to her chariot, the only sign of possible restlessness their raised paws.  Always at the ready in case they receive the order to continue on up and out of the city at last.  From her vantage point in the plaza bearing her name, she is content to spend day and night looking up calle Alcalá, the tip of the clock tower in the Puerta del Sol just barely visible between the buildings.  Or on the right, the Gran Vía, wide and commercial and always busy.  But the paseante is neither made of stone nor stuck in a traffic jam and can freely continue on up the street to explore.

An ornate monument in the best belles lettres tradition and dedicated to the author Juan Valera, stands near Plaza Colon.  Valera was a diplomat of liberal bent, known for his light style.  His most famous work is a sunny love story titled “Pepita Jimenez”.  The monument is fairly simple, just some stone steps leading to a tall wall, the author’s bust on the top.  What makes it delightful is the statue of Pepita herself sitting on the top step.  With her hair in ringlets, her full-skirted dress adorned with tiers of ruffles, and low comfy-looking slippers on her feet, she makes an utterly delightful 19th-century icon.  An open book lies forgotten near her elbow.  She’d rather daydream than read, gazing down at the flower bed that is almost always freshly planted at the foot of the monument.  Be careful not to get too close, though; she’s been known to lose the tip of her delicate stone nose, and the repair work is far from perfect.

Just a couple of blocks away from the Juan Valera memorial is a statue of the playwright Valle-Inclán.  Dressed in a natty suit, he is caught taking a step, his hands folded behind his back.  Every year on March 27, International Theater Day, a group of theater-lovers tie a white scarf around his neck.  Another figure that may be familiar is Mariblanca, a female figure set atop a tall white column.  The only bit remaining of a Baroque fountain, at different periods she has been moved around the center of the city but now stands once again in the Puerta Del Sol, at the mouth of Calle Arenal, an old street but newly pedestrianized when the square was re-modelled two years ago.

I was surprised, when walking in the Retiro Park a few months ago with friends who live here, that they didn’t know that Madrid has the only statue dedicated to Lucifer.  He has his own plaza in the park.  Surrounded by gargoyles spitting water at the base, the tormented Fallen Angel has been caught at in a moment of realization of some sort.  Has he just understood the seriousness of his sin or has he just been handed down his punishment, banishment from Paradise?  In any case, the look on his face is shows more anger than shock.

Less obvious are the anonymous statues dedicated to nothing in particular, half-hidden grace notes to a building.  It’s hard to miss the four graceful caryatids supporting the roof of the Instituto Cervantes with their heads and fine posture.  Their elegance is marred only by the pollution that coats their hair and shoulders and cheeks a dusty black, painting dark circles under sightless eyes.

And what about the ones that don’t meet the eye so easily?  The Gran Vía and Alcalá Street are dotted with statues crowning the roofs of buildings like displaced follies scattered on high by some powerful childish giant.  Diana the huntress stands solemn guard atop the Bellas Artes building, spear in hand and crested helmet on her head, a black statue against the building’s white.  One building is topped by a curious muscular Greek wearing nothing but a golden cloak draped over his shoulders, the two ends falling in neatly symmetrical folds.  High over his head he holds a miniature building that looks like a Roman temple.  It wasn’t until I took a picture, after years of seeing this at street level, that I was able to appreciate the dark pattern painted onto the “fabric”.  The most impressive of all, because of their size and breadth, are the wonderful chariot ensembles  – not one but two – complete with their riders and four prancing horses, on the roof of the Banco de Bilbao.

And then we have pure whimsy.

If your bus stops at the traffic light at the bottom of Joaquín Costa before turning onto the Castellana, you have time to look over the gate, into the otherwise unremarkable interior courtyard of a building belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture, at a dreamy shepherd.  He’s leaning on his staff and gazing off at the side of the building, just another wall with windows giving onto countless desks.  But surely what he is really seeing is his flock of fluffy white sheep grazing in the fields under the hot Castilian sun.  Makes a nice contrast in the midst of gray and brown high rises and the heavy traffic that fills this corner almost all day every day.

Another nice route goes past the dolphin fountain in the República del Ecuador square.  Six black dolphins, grouped in pairs, are leaping into the air or about to dive into the water.  Who can resist dolphins, even just stone ones?  Water and freedom and cavorting on your way to an über-urban activity:  a meeting, a movie, a visit to a museum.  Further along Serrano Street, in an area of a couple of blocks full of wonderful mansions, one of these buildings has always caught my eye for its neo-Gothic touches.  Four narrow windows with leaded glass panes and framed in stone are set into the street-side façade.  In one corner, a slim female figure stands stiff in a niche.   Best of all, high up on the peaked roof of the turret is a stone squirrel.  The fact that someone 1) had such a non sequitur sort of idea and 2) had the money to carry it out and 3) could find someone to sculpt it (“Good morning.  I’m looking for someone to carve a squirrel out of stone for the top of my turret.”) says a lot about a different, less hurried period – specialization indeed.  Unfortunately, the tip of the squirrel’s bushy tail somehow broke off some years ago, leaving only the iron pole that supported it.  It will probably never be repaired; I understand that this artisan stonework is prohibitive nowadays, not to mention the problem of the height, a good four storeys above street level.

But the most famous statue of all is the Oso y el Madroño, the emblem of Madrid.  This too has changed places several times, but always within the Puerta del Sol.  But even with all the changes, he never lost his status nor his visibility as a reference point for Being Downtown.  This fat black bear is standing on his hind legs, his front paws leaning on the trunk of the tree, stretching up towards the tip of the tree just out of reach above his head.  His mouth is open ready to grab some fruit.  Is the madroño, which translates as “strawberry”, a typical madrileño tree?  I’ve only ever seen one.  But the statue has stood in this square since 1967 – which means forever as far as most of us are concerned – and is the meeting point of everyone who has friends or acquaintances in this city.  Even newcomers will have no trouble finding this most popular of all the city’s icons, eternally pursuing his elusive snack in the heart of the city, oblivious to residents and visitors gathering at his paws to immortalize their visit or effusively greet each other as they set off on a night on the town.

Post by Clea.

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A Night at the Races!

We were going to the races at last, after much postponing.  And the best part was that we would be going to the last night race of the season.  Instead of boiling under the hot sun, peering out over the midday glare, we would be catching the breezes ever present on the outskirts of the city.  Not to mention the magic.  We were all unsure of what to expect.  Our sartorial expert, Alex, informed us that there was definitely a dress code at horse races in general (I fear this was based more on his childhood viewing of “My Fair Lady”).  Following his instincts, he appeared in a summery beige suit, looking smart and cool.  Diana topped her little black dress look with a close-fitting straw hat.  We were joined at the last minute by Pablo, our favorite addition to any gathering, thanks to his lively personality, original observations and unflagging energy.  Pablo, true to form, showed up in jeans and a bright turquoise t-shirt, which later proved useful for finding him in the crowd by the drinks stand.

A free shuttle bus leaves every 20 minutes from the Paseo Moret, in front of the Parque del Oeste; the ride takes 10 minutes along the Coruña road.  We arrived at 9:15, early dusk with the evening sky just starting to show orange and pink streaks.  Tickets on Thursday cost 5 euros.  Our tickets checked at the gate, we entered the extensive grassy grounds dotted with drinks stands; apparently, this is a great clubbing area into the wee hours.  First hint that no one would be standing on ceremony here:  the enticing smell of frying chorizo and lamb chops!  How was one supposed to enjoy a bocadillo de chorizo wearing a beige suit?  I closed my eyes momentarily, picturing red grease stains falling brightly on a white shirtfront.  Iindeed, apart from a stately blonde wearing a mini-skirt and sporting one of those stand-up sculpted hairdos that must have taken her several hours, and several tubes of hair gel, to achieve, most people were casual in bermuda shorts and jeans.

We carefully read our programs, relieved to see that, apart from complicated trebles and combination betsone could simply bet one euro on any horse to place.  That was my ticket for sure.  That doubt resolved, we strolled around the grassy bit between the stands and the track, admiring the structure of the grandstand with its award-winning concrete canopy.  A note on the history of the racetrack:  Officially called the Hipódromo de La Zarzuela, it was begun in 1935  and practically completed by July 1936.  The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and the fact that the racetrack was situated in an area of heavy fighting, left this project, like so many others, a pile of ruins by 1939.  Reconstruction followed the original plans drawn up in the Thirties, and the racetrack was inaugurated in May 1941. The concrete used in the canopy is only 5 cm thick and the whole structure is fixed solely in the back, leaving most of the structure free-flying, imitating a huge canvas awning.

The first race was to start at 10:15. By now there were more people, the sky was completely dark and the racetrack was brilliantly lit up with huge spotlights to dramatic effect.  We placed our bets, then wandered to the enclosure to see the first horses being led around in a circle.  (Later, we changed this order:  first we studied the horses as if it would help us decide the most likely winner.  Ultimately, none of this made the slightest difference to the outcome of our results.)  We just had time to hurry back to the stands, strategically settling on seats right in front of the finish line.  Pablo wondered if yelling and shouting would be frowned upon.    The horses were led out to the track, skittish and hard to control; the jockeys rode them up and down a bit, which seemed a real waste of energy to me.  However, Carlos assured me that this was to get them to let off a bit of steam before the race.  Shouldn’t they be letting off steam during the race? I still ask.  Finally – and sometimes, with quite a bit of difficulty – the horses were properly lined up at the gate.  A voice came over the loudspeakers giving all sorts of statistics that no one could make out.  The sound of a crack –

And they were off!

The crowd roared!

Clichés all but absolutely true (as are most clichés, of course, hence their name.)  Diana, binoculars in hand, yelled out information that was as incomprehensible as the voice over the loudspeaker, adding to the tension and excitement.  The horses rounded the first curve and raced along the backstretch.  A sustained yelling from the crowd.  Then they hit the home turn and went into the head of the stretch (the races are only 1600 meters).  With only seconds to go to the finish line, everyone leaped to their feet, cheering and egging on their horse (I think).  We all jumped up too and shouted ourselves hoarse, although it wasn’t easy to follow where exactly one’s favorite horse was at any particular point; this is no doubt a handicap that can be eventually overcome with practice.  It was all over in seconds.

There was about a half hour between races, time to go down and collect any winnings, check out the next round of horses, place new bets.  Diana, emboldened, started placing doubles and trebles and with utter brazenness.  I refused to throw away any of my stubs until checked and confirmed; we were such neophytes that I didn’t trust us to be able to decipher all of the possible results.  (Plus I once read that a very high percentage of lottery winnings were never even collected, and certainly didn’t want to be one of those statistics.)  Between the five of us we, tried out different ways of predicting the next winner.  Some thought it depended on the jockey, others on the horse’s projection in previous races.  Sometimes we just liked the names.  Once decided, we took careful note of our jockeys’ colors in order to try to follow them in the mad bolt around the track.

Midnight came and went.  Out in the garden, lines got longer for those bocadillos, long drinks and whiskeys on the rocks made a strong showing, and people’s informal attire got a bit fancier.  We now had our routine down pat.  Up and down the concrete stairs, mixing with the crowds and people-watching, discussing the relative musicality of names like Doña Pepita and Blue Satin.  I especially liked the noise under the flat ceiling of the vomitoria as we would work our way back out to the track to watch the next race.  Eventually, it was time to go back.  The bus left us back in the city; we had spent a grand total of approximately 15 euros, minus my winnings of 2 euros.  Altogether a highly recommendable experience for a hot summer’s night.


Post by Clea.

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Down to the River (Manzanares) in Madrid

Every self-respecting capital city has its river.  You can take a boat trip on the Danube in Budapest; on ours, we got caught in a brief squall, followed by a double rainbow over the spectacular House of Parliament.  The Parisian baton mouches are famously romantic.  Would the Golden Horn count as Istanbul’s “river”?  At any rate, a thrilling and very busy waterway.  And yes, Madrid too has its watery claim to fame, albeit not nearly as famous.  The Manzanares flows along the southern part of the city.  Did I say “flows”?  That’s a euphemism as, even in the springtime, it’s silted up and barely moving.  More of a testimonial, a manner of speaking than anything else.   Different mayors have tried various ploys to make it more visible in the life of the city, with little lasting effect.  The most recent innovation has been a costly investment to bury the ring roads circling the city, pushing the daily stream of cars into long tunnels and allowing a redesign of the banks.  Now a lovely area in its infancy, cyclists and pedestrians mingle – not always pacifically -, children cool off in the several playgrounds scattered here and there, sleek new foot bridges criss-cross the river alongside the venerable Puentes de Segovia and Toledo.  I say that it’s in its infancy because, for one thing, the area was officially inaugurated only three months ago but especially because the newly-planted trees are of course still sticks, barely able to create any shade whatsoever.  We went just on time, because it will be tricky to stroll along the approximately 8 kms come Madrid’s high Summer.  And our little river doesn’t have enough water to create any sense of refreshing coolness.

This is not a part of the city I get to very often.  We took the subway to Legazpi and strolled for a couple of hours, dodging the occasional speeding bikes and marveling at how so many apartment buildings that had been boxed in by busy streets for so long now enjoyed the quiet of a pedestrian area and much nicer views.  Along the way we passed the Sala Riviera, a well-known club that looks like a huge garage left over from some fancy mansion.  The legendary Vicente Calderón stadium, home to the Atlético de Madrid of long history but declining fortunes, remains nonetheless an important madrileño landmark.  The small church dedicated to La Virgen del Puerto was gated off but we were able to peer through the bars for a distanced look at the dim interior, decked out with flowers and lace and gold leaf.   Crossing the broad Calle Segovia, we soon reached the end of the walk, near the twin chapels dedicated to St. Anthony.  The original was built in 1790, with frescoes completed by Goya in 1798.  An exact replica was built in 1929 across the street so that the two structures stand side by side; the first is a museum and the latter still serves as a church.   Every 13th of June, the feast of St. Anthony, there is a verbena or street fair still.  Although I haven’t been in years, we went several times when I was a child.  Walking along the Paseo de la Florida, after a failed attempt to have lunch at the legendary Casa Mingo (because there was a line of people waiting for a table) which proved to be no problem whatsoever as the street is lined with pleasant eateries, and thrilling to the regal skyline stretched overhead – Madrid falls steeply from Plaza de España and the Royal Palace down to the river, making for spectacular views of the palace and the Campo del Moro park -, I fell into nostalgic recall…  What does one really remember from childhood?  The age-old question:  stories re-told, fused and confused with scattered images.

A hot Summer’s evening.  In those days it was easy to park just about anywhere on either side of the broad avenue.  (Were the streets cobblestone?)  My father parked our boxy Peugeot and we all climbed out into the thick dusk.  As we impatiently waited for the grown-ups to lock the doors, check the lights, pick up a sweater, we could hear the hullaballoo in the near distance.  A short walk and we entered the fair ground.  What was, the rest of the year, just a bare space.  Hard packed dirt was the floor.  The noise was exciting:  the start and finish of all the rides was announced with a whirring siren, and there was music coming from the merry-go-round, and there was the barker at the stand where you could shoot decrepit BB guns at ribbons and win a big stuffed animal or a doll decked in pink tulle ruffles.  There were the giant swings:  rows of chairs suspended from the upper platform on chains.  The horn sounded, the roof slowly gained momentum and the swings, centrifuged, would shoot out, the riders’ feet swinging out too, far beyond the outer rim of the base.  The girls’ skirts fanned out in the wind, and shrill screams of scared delight made a thrilling sight.  We were never allowed to go on because my father was convinced that the chains could get tangled up and we’d be trapped there for hours.  It was one of those tales that one vaguely recalls – either it happened to him or he saw it happen.  No doubt the ride would be considered tame by today’s standards but it was by far the wildest thing around in those days.

There were the bumper cars too, for the older kids to get into fights with each other or flirt, both objectives accomplished in exactly the same way, by repeatedly crashing into the chosen prey.  And the boys had another chance to show off with a couple of show-of-strength contraptions.  One was classic:  the potential strongman would swing a heavy mallet high over his head and bring it down with all his might onto a base which in turn – hopefully – propelled a metal disk to the very top of the pole.  If this was accomplished with the right amount of strength, a gong would sound.  The other was a metallic locomotive with a handle on the back.  The idea was to grip the contraption full-handed and run the locomotive back and forth along a level track in order to gather speed and momentum and then, finally, to hurl the piece along the short level bit and on up a steep slope.  The engine would either whoosh up to the top, at which point it would round the slight curve and slide back down (while onlookers patted the successful muscleman on the back while loudly voicing their approval) or, as in the majority of the cases, the little train would go roaring up the slope only to halt at some mid-point far from the apex and slide dishearteningly back downwards.

And what description of a verbena would be complete without mention of churros?  The man in the white apron holding a giant syringe over a vat of boiling oil, pushing the dough out by pressing his shoulder down on the pump.  It was a kind of primitive dance, rhythmically pressing and turning his body so that the dough came out shaped like an elongated ribbon.  Every single churro was the same size.  There was no hesitation; he knew exactly when to break off the squeezed dough with his fingers.  Down it would fall into the vat with a bright sizzle, to be fished out a minute later by his wife who filled endless orders for a dozen churros by looping them onto a flexible green reed which she closed off with a loose knot.  And there we had our treat, piping hot and deliciously greasy.

No doubt we never stayed late.  Another bright image:  arriving home tired and hot, ready to fall into bed.  But first we had to wash off our feet, filthy from the dust, the mark of our flip-flops v-ing down from our toes.  For this we had the bidet, quick and easy.  For years our parents told us that that was the bidet’s purpose:  a convenient place for washing feet.


Post by our guest blogger Clea.

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Line 8 of the Madrid subway, or subway etiquette

City dwellers necessarily walk a lot, either by choice – some inhabitants don’t even own a car, preferring to dispense with the expense and bother of a means of transport that they rarely use – or by necessity.  Some of these people travel exclusively by taxi, but the vast majority take public transport.  In Madrid, as the city has grown bigger and more modern, so too has the public transportation system.  Between buses, subway and commuter trains, it’s now possible to travel comfortably to most places in and around the city.  The average madrileño has sensibly adopted small habits that make the cohabitation of many, forced to share small spaces, at least reasonable and/or manageable.  This includes avoiding such behavior as  standing in the middle of the sidewalk, chatting, thus forcing rivers of pedestrians to break their rhythm to halt and circle the foreign body.  All over the city people are hurrying up and down escalators, crossing crowded vestibules and generally managing to reach their destination with as little fuss as possible.

But what happens when the average working person, who uses the subway daily as the speediest way to get to work comes up against Line 8?  This is the line that goes back and forth to the airport.  It’s cheap, convenient, central and frequent.  Well and good – for the tourist.  But what an absentminded, clueless class they are!  Spaniards are always putting themselves down and singing the praises of everything foreign as better, newer, more advanced, more efficient and yes, this can be the case.  But when it comes to Subway Etiquette, all stereotypes are blasted apart.  Mysteriously, we locals are capable of hurrying along while, at the same time, keeping our eyes open so as not to walk into each other and even more, maintaining  a  steady pace.  It’s true that we know where we’re going.  But one feels that the logical behavior of those who do not know would be, at the minimum, to get out of the way while trying to figure it out.  What ignorance leads people to consult a map in the middle of a connecting hall?  Stop at the top of the escalator to look around in innocent wonder?  And, most annoying of all, plant themselves in the middle of the moving staircase with their suitcase securely next to them, thereby blocking the way of those of us who are in fact, trying to actually get somewhere?  Line 8  is the only line where it doesn’t seem to occur to the users to stand aside, keep right.  They do it in Paris, they do it in London; and guess what?  We do it too.  Unfortunately, the blessed tourist does not seem to notice.

Perhaps the city hall should put up a few signs, just as of old it was necessary to remind users:  No Spitting.


(Guest post by Clea)

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Romantic Museum in Madrid

What does Romanticism really mean?  The definitions abound with words like subjectivism, emotion, individualism, imagination, escapism.  A new way of looking at the world, with the individual moving onto center stage.  In Spain, the Romantic movement got off to a relatively late start, not really taking hold until 1840; by that time, it was fairly diluted and didn’t give rise to anything especially original.  Nonetheless, the word “Romantic” reminds me of the ballet.  I think of tutus, slippers bound with silken ribbon, pastel blues and pinks and pure white, strong muscular men hoisting ethereal women airborne, or leaping about to glorious music.  But underneath it is the reality of hours of bone-grinding work, open sores on overworked toes, repetitions of the basic movements, strictly disciplined.  So with Romanticism:  pale ladies courted by aesthetic looking gentlemen in dark frock coats that set off their long limbs.  Full ruffled dresses in organdies and sprigged muslin.  Genteel through and through.  But visit the Romantic Museum on calle San Mateo (now officially and more exactly known as the Museum of Romanticism) and you get a clearer idea of what went on behind the scenes.  Yes, the well-off surrounded themselves with beautifully and painstaking detail.  But the overall effect is claustrophobic, as stiff as the whalebone corsets nipping in tiny waists, all of it garnished with a morbid fascination with death.

This is not to say that the visit isn’t a pleasant one.  Housed in a neo-Classical palace dating from 1776, the museum has been recently and completely refurbished, with every detail carefully recreated.  Damask, satin and brocades cover chairs, drape the windows and line  display cases filled with exquisite porcelain plates, bowls and knick-knacks.  Walk up the stairs to the main floor, after leaving your bulky 21st century bags and backpacks in the lockers and getting your ticket, and you step into the 1800’s:   gracious, refined.

The ballroom is sedate.  A large rectangular space, a round settee is set in the middle of the room.  A piano in one corner (the first of several throughout the museum), chairs against the walls, mirrors and portraits.   A thick and lovely carpet is covered with a wide strip of coarse protective matting, and the guards have to keep reminding visitors to kindly not step on the lovely old pattern, despite the fact that most of the information on the bottom of the paintings is so tiny that inevitably, one forgets.   Despite this intrusion of the everyday contemporary world, one likes to imagine polkas and mazurkas sounding to the delight of young dancers, watchful mamas seated on the brocade-lined chairs, fanning themselves while the gentlemen lounge against the polished wooden tables, à la Jane Austen.

Exiting through the door at the far end of the music room, the visitor enters a more museum-like section in that there are various displays set up according to theme rather than attempting to imitate a home.  Two important aspects of Romanticism are present here.  Costumbrismo, the idealized depiction of gypsies, countryfolk and bandits, was popular in the décor of this period.  Women wearing full skirts in black and white, embroidered shawls picturesquely draped over their shoulders are shown talking to dashing-looking men often seated on horseback, pistols tucked into their wide waistband.  There is no hint of poverty or unwashed bodies.  Backgrounds can be landscapes or the steps of a dark church.  Another popular subject was the ruined abbey or an oriental motif, evocative and mysterious and most often unnamed.   Again, as with the unrealistic paintings of romantic peasants and gypsies, these were not attempts to record an actual scene.  The caption on one of the paintings showing a scene that could have been painted anywhere between Greece and Egypt, for example, simply reads, “Oriental landscape with ruins”.

Religious themes, with the accent on death, is omnipresent in the art of this period.   Sweet-faced virgins facing martyrdom and haggard white-haired hermits alone in the desert fill the paintings.  Pause to admire the lovely little statue of a sleeping child:  Round-faced and chubby-cheeked, it looks like the epitome of peace and innocence – and then one sees its outstretched hand resting on a skull.  Further on is a painting titled, “Married Love”.  The scene?  A man on his deathbed, his grieving wife praying at his side.  Not exactly an optimistic outlook on life!

The children’s area is filled with beautiful toys.  A large dollhouse is furnished with everything down to the last detail in imitation of the “real” thing:  fans, bookcases complete with books, dressers with tiny drawer handles, elaborate chandeliers.  There’s even a model “doll house” of a convent.  Dolls made out of porcelain and bisque wear fussy lace dresses.  Several minute decks of playing cards are stacked on a shelf – everything, while beautiful, seems too ornate and tiny for a child’s eager fingers.  Portraits show children in lace bonnets, fat and red-cheeked, but in most of them the child is solemn and unsmiling, miniature adults.

The wife’s boudoir is filled with objects of all sorts.  Every inch of space is occupied by something; the effect is one of neat clutter.  The room is interior and this, couples with the bed hangings, dried flowers set under glass, delicate chairs that look as if they’d crack under the slightest weight, make this area of the house claustrophobic, too hot-house for our modern eyes.  The bedroom was considered the woman’s refuge and this one seems a reflection of the ideal woman of the time:  fragile, elegant, dainty.  (Although it’s important to bear in mind that the museum here is not an attempt to recreate an exact replica of a home but that its main purpose is to display objects from the time.)

The men’s rooms, which give onto the exterior, are much brighter.  The furniture is made of heavy solid wood, with business-like desks and highboys, drawers everywhere.  The smoking room would be the equivalent to the lady’s boudoir, a place to meet with one’s most intimate friends.  There’s a spacious office and a wonderful billiard room; this last includes a curious portrait of a young boy of about 13 or 14, shown holding a large cigar.

Some of the splendid – and noteworthy – objects found in the museum are early examples of toothbrushes (why is it always surprising to us moderns to learn that our ancestors were already taking care of their hygiene 200 years before us?); in a similar vein, we can see Fernando VII’s magnificent toilet, the central chair set in mahogany.  Is this regal and far-from-shy design the reason why these objets are sometimes referred to as “thrones”?  There’s also an elaborate recliner type armchair that looks like a more elegant example of the ones to be found in any modern store furniture nowadays.  A pitcher with the handle in the shape of a female figure seems to be a precursor to the purest Art Deco.  Fans trimmed with feathers too floppy to create much of a breeze were no doubt excellent for setting off a flirty look, while others show beautiful hand-painted scenes set into ivory bases.  There are several lithophane lampshades made from translucent bisque (unglazed ceramic) etched with designs that show most clearly when backlit.  Dainty lace-edged parasols to keep pink and white complexions from turning to unsightly brown or, even worse, red.  Another thing our ancestors had on us, although for different reasons.  The dining room with the table completely set for a formal meal:  snowy white damask tablecloth, wine goblets, gold-rimmed water glasses, heavy silver.

But after wandering through all of the rooms, one finds the best and most original feature of the museum.  Looking like a dollhouse for grown-ups is the façade of a building that reproduces two storeys of windows with their iron balcony railings.  The beauty of it is that, peering in at the different levels one spies scenes from everyday life.  A family sitting at the dinner table, being served by the maid; a couple dancing while a Chopinesque young man accompanies them at the piano; another couple just alighting from their carriage; two maids in the kitchen.  The effect is similar to that of the famous hologram of Princess Leia in “Star Wars”, as the miniature figures endlessly re-enact their scenes.

At the end of the tour, there is a very cleverly-set up exhibition of objects belonging to the Larra, the Romantic writer who committed suicide at the age of 28.  Letters, bills, receipts, books, a frockcoat, all of these can be seen in a small room just off the main entrance.  The room is dim, and the objects are set within covered cardboard containers.  The covers have small tabs that, when pulled, open the case which in turn lights up so that the object can be comfortable studied.  An appropriate and secure system for viewing delicate and very old objects.

And most certainly worthy of mention is the pleasant gift store opposite the ticket counter, full of appetizing items ranging from coffee table books to bookmarks and pencils, and leading onto a coffeeshop where one can enjoy refreshment looking out onto the walled garden that has been restored as carefully and lovingly as the rest of this jewel of a museum.

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