20 April 2015

Dispatches from Spain 8

by Rich Gilbert

[Once again, my friend Rich Gilbert has sent me an e-mail from Madrid, keeping me up to date on his and Sallie’s continuing adventure.  Check back for Dispatches 1-7 (30 November, 10 December, and 20 December 2014, and 14 January and 8 March 2015) to catch up with the story.  Rich and Sallie are about halfway through their sojourn in Madrid, and they haven’t decided where they’ll go next, but they’re still learning about life in Madrid in the meantime.  There have been some interesting and potentially significant developments in Spanish politics Rich explains, and some perhaps less portentous ones in football/soccer, too.  As usual, Rich’s relation of the details of his experiences make them come alive for those of us not so familiar with Spanish culture and lifestyle.  I hope you are all also following the blog Sallie maintains on her own, Rambling Solo, at http://ramblingsolo.blogspot.com.es.]

Madrid at six months‏

Madrid – April 12, 2015

Dear Friends and Family,

This coming week will bring Sallie and me to the halfway point in our year abroad.  It is hard to believe that it has gone by so quickly.  Perhaps equally important, it means that we will have a little over a month left on our lease in Madrid.  We have been comfortable here and, even though traveling will be exciting, we will miss having a “home” to come back to. (After I got out of the Army in 1982, I travelled around Europe for over three months, so I know both the fun and hardships of extended travel.) 

Daily Life

We have had rain and some colder weather recently.  A bit of a shock coming after so many clear, sunny days. A couple of weeks ago it was in the 70’s and people were sitting outside at the sidewalk cafes.  I expect that we will again soon, but I was glad I had not sent our winter clothes back just yet.

Both Sallie and I have had some disappointment in how our Spanish is coming. To be sure, we are both getting better, but it has not been as easy as we hoped / expected. Sallie is still going to class every weekday morning for 4 hours and diligently doing several hours of homework each night. Her grammar is getting much better although she still has trouble figuring out which of the many possible verb tenses and moods to use in a given case. My reading comprehension is pretty good now, although I still need a dictionary to fully understand the political pieces, and the sports stories about soccer. (The sports writers seemed determined to outdo James Joyce in describing a simple game and its players.)

Our real problems remain in hearing and speaking, in other words conversational Spanish. I get a little more practice, and am a bit less shy than Sallie.  I try to banter with the shopkeepers and bartenders / barristas I see regularly, but it is not the same as sitting down and having a real conversation.  Although they have different names, Spanish bars can serve alcohol whenever they are open, but also will always have coffee available.  For example, each morning after the gym and shopping, I drop into Cerverceria (which means a place that serves beer) Chispa to have a cafe solo (which is an expresso) and chat with the owner and glance at the paper. Her beer tap does not even work.  In addition, Spanish bars always have non-alcoholic beer available, sometimes even on tap.

We have made some friends here, although we do not see them as regularly as friends back in DC, but even then we usually speak English. We have decided to try some private lessons at Sallie’s school, just a teacher and us, to see if that helps.  We are also trying to make an effort to watch a bit more Spanish TV. We are also able to see movies out, but have usually opted to watch the same films you probably see in English although with Spanish subtitles.  We do ask for menus in Spanish, even when offered ones in English, although the English menus can be helpful with guests.

I can usually get by in simple situations, although my Spanish sometimes betrays me. I still do most of the shopping and have my favorite small merchants for the different products I buy. For convenience, Sallie prefers the supermarket around the corner; I regularly walk three blocks out of my way just to buy the bread I like best. I know that once our time here in Madrid is up, we will miss having the occasional home cooked meals; I cook a big meal for lunch two to three times a week and we often have light meals in the evening and for breakfast.

One interesting experience recently was that I had run out of some medicine which I need to take.  I had ordered more and had it sent to my post office box where a friend picked it up and mailed it to me here in Madrid.  Well, it has not gotten here yet, so I went into a pharmacy to see what it would take for them to refill the prescription.  To my surprise, I found that they could sell me the medicine over the counter. It was a larger size pill, but could be easily broken in half. She handed me a box of 50 pills, which would be equal to 100 of the pills I was getting, and said it would be two fifty. I grimaced a little and reached into my wallet to pull out five 50 Euro bills. The clerk laughed and explained that she meant two Euros and 50 centavos, less than three dollars! I was astounded, but obviously pleased.  I will have to see whether some of my other prescriptions can be filled so easily and cheaply. Does make you wonder why even with Medicare and Medicare supplement assistance, medicines in the United States are so much more expensive.

Semana Santa (Holy Week)

Easter is a considerably bigger deal in Spain than in the United States. Although there are activities throughout the week before Easter, things start off in a big way on Thursday.  The stores and business often close for Thursday through the weekend, and the ones that are open on Thursday close at lunch. Thus, it is often a four day weekend and many Spaniards travel over the holiday.  It is comparable to our Thanksgiving holiday weekend as far as travel is concerned (without the Black Friday pre-Christmas sales).

One notable aspect of Semana Santa are the religious processions.  The major churches in a town or city (always Catholic) have very elaborate “floats,” usually two, one showing Jesus carrying the cross and one showing the Madonna grieving over Jesus’ body (called the Dolorosa). These are traditional, sometimes many years old, usually covered with gold and other ornamentation. The difference is that they are carried by a team of men carrying the floats on their shoulders.  Their ability to march in lockstep through narrow streets and around tight corners puts my old ROTC drill team to shame. It is grueling work and the procession often stops for a break.  As the procession proceeds through the town, there will be spontaneous cries and cheers, and also planned activities at given places, including the town hall. There is no concern about mixing Church and State here in Spain.  The floats are accompanied by many other members of the congregation who carry candles, icons, other articles. The disconcerting thing is that these people are all wearing robes and tall pointed headpieces that look exactly like what the Ku Klux Klan used to wear.  You have to remind yourself that these costumes predate the discovery of the New World and have nothing whatsoever to do with the Klan.  (Whether the Klan borrowed the idea, I do not know, but it seems likely.)

We caught up with one in Madrid on the Thursday evening.  We never got very close because of the crowds, and like many others would try to move ahead of the procession to see it at different places. The crowd was basically respectful, but there was still a bit of a holiday atmosphere.  (Nothing like Mardi Gras however.)  In other places. such as Seville, we understand the crowds are more reverential.

To further experience the Spanish experience, we then rented a car Friday morning and left town.  I think we must have gotten one of the last rental cars in Madrid, probably because it was a stick shift.  I did not think that they even used manual transmission in rental cars, but at any rate our growing up in the 60’s helped. It had a push-button starter though, which was harder to get used to.

We spent two nights in a Parador in the Gredos Mountains (Sierra del Gredos), a beautiful mountain range about three hours to the west and north of Madrid.  Most people do not realize that Spain is actually a pretty mountainous country.  I read it was second only to Switzerland, but am not sure how Norway figures into that.  The difference is that there are numerous ranges all over the country, not just one or two chains.  We have not seen the Picos de Europa in Asturias in the north of Spain, which are the highest.  From pictures they look much like the Rockies.  (We will let you know this summer.) The mountains we saw were older, more like the Appalachians. Still, it was good to get out the hiking boots and poles for a day. 

Paradores are national hotels, usually located in historic old buildings like monasteries, palaces, castles, etc. They are nice, but not five star luxurious, and the kitchens specialize in food from the region. The one in Gredos, was the first Parador, founded in 1926 in what had been a mountain monastery.  We were surprised how many families with small children there were.

On Easter Sunday, we left and drove to Caceres, an old city in the southwest of Spain, closer to Portugal than Madrid.  The Parador there is in the center of the old town and very hard to drive to.  This was made more difficult by several street closures due to a procession, about which, of course, our GPS knew nothing.  While not as old as Barcelona’s old town, Caceres dates back to before the Roman conquest of Spain. Like other cities in Spain, it was later fought over by the Moors and Christians, in the centuries before Columbus left Spain.  

The procession was still going on when we got settled.  As we walked around the old town, we could hear the drums and flutes, but could never find it.  The narrow streets and high stone buildings created confusing echoes. Later, however, we heard a racket outside our hotel room with several men moving metal poles and lumber.  It turns out they were putting away one of the floats, which we realized when we saw the statue of the Virgin Mary lying in the back seat of one of the cars.

I gather it is the beginning of cherry blossom time in Washington, D.C.  On our way to Caceres, we came through a mountain pass in the Sierra del Gredos and into a beautiful, steep valley that had cherry trees in full bloom on the hills on both sides.  This went on for miles. It was quite spectacular and cars were stopped wherever they could on the narrow roads. So we were thinking of those of you back in D.C.

Spanish Politics

On March 22, elections were held for the regional government of Andalucia, which is the largest region in Spain, encompassing Sevilla, Cordoba, Grenada, Malaga, Cadiz, and other towns and rural areas.  The Socialist party had a surprising victory, gaining almost twice as many seats in the legislature, which in turn elects the regional president.  The incumbent president, Susannah Diaz, a Socialist, was pretty popular and the party actually focused on her in the campaign.  The election was a huge defeat for the Popular Party which is the governing party at the national level. As expected the two populist parties, Podemos and Cuidadanos, both gained seats.  (A left wing party barely got five seats, and another national party from the center was shut out, causing all sorts of upheaval at their national level.)

Diaz did not get an absolute majority, however, and the last several weeks have been about maneuvering.  Either Podemos or Cuidadanos could give the Socialists a majority if they joined the government. Both are holding out for certain concessions, the foremost of which is the dismissal of a regional senator, who was an ex-president of the region, and of another deputy as both are implicated in a corruption scandal.  Neither has been formally charged, much less convicted, so the Socialists are resisting. Such horse-trading appears to be the future of Spanish politics for the foreseeable future as none of the four major parties appears likely to win any election outright.  

The loss threw the conservative Popular Party into disarray.  They were hoping to run on the genuine improvement in the economic situation in Spain, but I think the corruption scandals, more of which involve the Popular Party, are just taking their toll.  Mariano Rajoy, the President of the Government, who is also the head of the Popular Party, called a major national meeting of the party’s leadership. One interesting thing that came out of the meeting was that local candidates were encouraged not to criticize too harshly candidates from Cuidadanos, which is the more center based of the two populist parties.  To me, this signals that Rajoy realizes that any hope of continuing to govern nationally will depend on finding a partner, and that Cuidadanos represents the most plausible alternative.

Spain has elections for some other regions and for municipalities all over Spain in May. Andalucia was a Socialist bastion, so the results from other regions will be interesting.  In September, there will be a regional election in Cataluña.  As I have mentioned before, the plan of the separatists is to run a single slate with representatives from all of the parties favoring Catalan independence.  If they win an absolute majority, they will declare that to be a binding referendum with an intention of declaring independence 18 months later, after a period of negotiation with the national government.  It is not certain that the separatists will win, but it will be close.  See Scotland. Stay tuned. National elections will be at the end of the year, after Sallie and I are back.  

Spanish Football

As expected, Real Madrid, Barcelona and to a lesser degree Atletico Madrid continue to dominate.  Barcelona won the rematch with Real Madrid in league play and now leads by two points with eight games to go. (A team gets 3 points for a win, one point for a tie and nothing for a loss.)  Barcelona and Real Madrid do not play again, so Real Madrid needs help, and must avoid losses or ties themselves. For example, Real Madrid won Saturday while Barcelona was tied by Sevilla, which narrowed the gap which had been four points. (Atletico also tied, thus did not gain ground.)

All three teams remain in the European Champions League tournament, which is down to 8 teams.  The next round is a set of home and away games starting this coming week.  Real Madrid and Atletico drew each other, so the city will be close to shutting down this coming Tuesday night. Meanwhile, Barcelona faces Paris Saint Germain, who knocked out English club Chelsea.  That should be a good set of matches.   Bayern Muenchen lurks in the other bracket, probably as the overall favorite.  France also has Monaco, while Portugal and Italy each have one team remaining.  To their embarrassment, no English club is left in the tournament. So much for Premier League domination!

Of course, this being football (soccer), there are always problems off the field.  The ex-manager of Osunana, a second division club, just went to jail for fraud. The Catalan regional prosecutors are prosecuting the head of the Barcelona club for tax fraud in conjunction with multi-million dollar contract with the Brazilian forward Neymar.  (Barcelona as a team also was barred from signing any new players for the coming year for violating the rules in conjunction with Neymar’s signing. )  Of course, none of this is as bad as Turkey, where someone opened up with a shotgun at the team bus carrying the players for one club.  Meanwhile FIFA had to face reality and recognize that the 2022 World Cup, which they had awarded to Qatar, could not possibly be played in the summer there, so it will be played in December of that year.  This will wreak havoc with the European leagues who normally play then.  It will not affect Major League Soccer which plays in the spring, summer and fall, but I seem to recall that there is another form of “football” played in the United States during that time of year which draws some mild interest. We will see how a World Cup quarterfinal matches up to, say, Packers – Patriots. That is in 7 years though. Time for other scandals to bubble up.

 *  *  *  *
Two nights after I sent my email, we were having a plate of fried baby squid at the bar of a seafood / paella restaurant when the owner came in. He knows us a little and has taken a shine to us.  He is from Asturias in the north of Spain where we plan to visit in July, so he gave us some tips. Shortly afterwards another customer came in with a present – several large pieces of salted tuna which she had gotten in Murcia (a city in the southeast of Spain, near Valencia) where it is a specialty.  The owner cut some up for us; with tomatoes and olive oil it was delicious.  (These things almost always taste better than they sound.) So I settled my bill, left a big tip and asked him to give the other customer a drink on us.  Well, the Spanish may be reticent on the street, but once the ice is broken, they are quite friendly. So the other customer started talking to us, then the other couple at the bar joined in. (The owner had given them a sample of the tuna also.)  Turns out he was a lawyer, so we started talking.  Ended up discussing the role of Spain, and its navy, in the formation of the United States. Meanwhile Sallie continued to talk to the female customer.  Several rounds of drinks later, some of them on the house, we had to leave., with assurances that we would be back.

Key fact – all of the conversations were in Spanish.  It was my longest Spanish conversation, and most interesting, to date, and it was Sallie’s first one of substance. So we not only had a great time, but got some renewed confidence in our Spanish.

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