Sunny Sexy South
Why life is more fun closer to the equator

Jun
04

On my way to Berlin earlier this week I wrote an update of the previous week’s events in Madrid. First of all, here’s a picture of mine at the Puerta del Sol during the protest on Friday afternoon, May 27th, after the Barcelona police violently attacked protesters there and cleared the Plaza Catalunya. I took roses from my garden and stripped the petals one by one into this central fountain. There has been no violence at Sol, although the police did clear out the protesters at five in the morning (Tuesday May 18th) after the second night they camped out.

The next day was when the grassroots meetings were scheduled all over Madrid and throughout the rest of the country. I went to the neighborhood meeting which was called for Plaza Oporto, at the metro stop about 10 minutes’ walk from my house. The week has been warm, with temperatures approaching 30 degrees (mid-80s). I’d estimate there were at least 200 people and possibly even 300. They had a PA system and a sign language interpreter. I snapped a few photos and left; it’s not clear to me as an immigrant what my role could be.

My housemate stayed the entire time, which is a very good sign, given that he described himself as apolitical when I first met him. A thirty-something who represents a fairly uncommon sector in Spain: the well-read, his disaffection is likely similar to mine with the U.S. Both systems, through byzantine electoral rules have . Spain is not completely non-parliamentarian as the U.S. but does a good job at being non-representative, with the smaller parties gaining seats in parliament that are much lower in proportion to their percentage of the popular vote. Spain also has no wide-spread Green Party, which is pretty clearly what a large part of the twenty- and thirty-somethings would vote if given the choice. His report back to me is that the people were lamenting the absence of immigrant participation and diversity. Interesting; if it hadn’t been for this trip to Berlin, I might have reconsidered whether I could somehow get involved.

El Pais included pictures of six of the plazas including Oporto here.

May
24

Although I’ve sorely neglected this blog in the last half year, due to a great deal of travel to Berlin, France and California, I certainly can’t let what’s happening in Spain go by without comment. So here are excerpts of an Email I sent to my dear ones abroad, interspersed with photos I took Sunday (election day in Spain) of the sit-in at the Puerta del Sol. You can see (thanks to L.) two amazing panoramic shots here.

As I’m pretty tapped into the green/anarchist left-wing in Madrid, I received the original call for a protest march for May 15th. That happened to be the last day of the DocumentaMadrid film festival (when they show the prize-winning films) and I had three cinema sessions planned plus an urban garden awaiting tomato plants that I’d germinated in my garden. So I said to myself (especially in the wake of May Day), “yeah, yeah, just another demo that won’t amount to anything”, and didn’t go. The next day of course I heard the demonstrators had camped out that night at Sol but again I said to myself that it won’t last. On Tuesday evening given that it wasn’t going away, I got my butt over there and really there were a lot of people, possibly a thousand with constant turn-over of thousands more because it’s the exact center of town so one can go by, then go about one’s business then easily circle back around.

Wednesday night I saw somewhat more participants but roughly double the police presence compared to Tuesday and I thought to myself, uh-oh. But even now, they still haven’t been thrown out of the square (I think the políticos originally didn’t dare given the proximity of the elections, but now I’m a bit surprised they’re still there). It poured buckets Thursday; the protestors were not deterred. By Friday night at midnight when they scheduled a moment of silence as the start to the Spanish “Day of Reflection” prior to the Sunday elections, Sol was totally packed. There was no way I could get in, and all the side streets (I think there are 10) leading to the square were packed to at least a half a block away. The police presence was much less than I’d seen either of the previous days, with them in a butt-scratching, putting-in-overtime sort of mood. So the vibe was, needless to say, super good, and the media had finally stopped saying it was only youth as frankly large sectors of society were out there.

This Sunday during the elections I was there again and it’s well-organized, with political meetings going on constantly with different themes in various side streets and the center of the square covered in tarps for several hundred people to camp out overnight. Today and the two previous days the temperatures have approached or exceeded 30°C; the protesters have not been deterred. However, all of us are discouraged by the elections (the privatization-crazy right has swept the regional elections across the country). The results were a terrible shock though not a surprise; the country is sadly well on its way down the slippery slide to a bi-party system and a protest vote means of necessity choosing the opposite party, no matter how awful it is, similar to what happens in the U.S.

So what does it all mean? Spain is special in many ways (underdeveloped but developing too quickly and at times simply not very European, facts about which the Spanish have a total inferiority complex). Democratic traditions are tentative and new (it’s important to remember there have been only 35 yrs of democracy, prior to which there was no right to associate — it was forbidden — meaning my little NGO could not have existed if I had immigrated to Spain in the mid-1970s). To go to Sol and see democracy being played out in the street (using a consensus process) is quite stirring. The other perspective I can add has to do with how groups organize themselves communally. Honestly, I have never lived in a country that is so communitarian; it’s the key to the very cool Tabacalera self-run (auto-gestionado) community cultural center that some of you who’ve visited me have come to know. After some two and a half years here, I think I can say it’s the thing I most admire about this country.

Oct
09

I’ve been neglecting this blog terribly as I was busy much of September having a blast in Berlin, where I managed to neglect my Berlin blog equally as well. Given that nothing reflects more clearly than the Internet how short our modern attention spans have become, it’s no surprise my blog hits dropped by half during my absence. But since that most likely means I have a regular readership, I am anxious to offer a peace offering and woo you back. So here’s more about seafood (which in my mind really is the best thing about Spain).

We’re entering mejillón season (according to Spanish seafood vendors that means months containing an “r”) but mussels are pretty easy to find throughout the year due to modern mariculture. This summer I was experimenting with ways to steam them. I’ve come up with a fusion recipe (the best thing about having lived and traveled world-wide is the interesting culinary influences one can bring to bear). It uses my secret ingredient: tabasco sauce. We North Americans rightly know a few drops improve the flavor of virtually any savory dish. So, ladies and gentlemen, here’s my version of mejillones al vapor which I’m dubbing “à la Tabasco” (with apologies for the liberties I’ve taken regarding French gender rules).

Into a big pot sprinkle a generous quantity of crush garlic, 6 or 8 drops of tabasco sauce and squeeze a quarter to third of a lemon (depending on how juicy it is). Add water, then fill the pot with well-rinsed mejillones and cover with a tightly fitting lid. To correctly prepare them al vapor, one should use a metal rack to elevate the shells off the bottom, but if you don’t have one, you can get away with just minimal layer of water in the bottom. During the steaming, the mussels will release some of the water they’ve retained and you’ll find your pot never goes dry. You needn’t steam for very long: some 5 or 10 minutes. Lift the lid and see if the majority of the mussels have opened up, then you’re done. Serve with bread to soak up the broth from the bottom of the pot.

Oct
07

R. and I have a new culinary creation. Being the risotto expert, he was in charge of properly frying and hydrating it (which generally involves at least 45 minutes of constant stirring). I took charge of the creative end, suggesting a mixture of shrimp, setas and asparagus. At the very end after R. dumped in the requisite cups-full of parmigiana reggiano, I had an inspiration. This being Spain, one must, of necessity, always have saffron on hand. So I ground some up and sprinkled it in. Sublime. I wish I had thought to take a photo before it all disappeared. Next time.

Oct
06

It was a stellar soccer year for Spain, as no one who lives in Madrid could possibly avoid knowing. But something even more special (at least for those of us whose interest in politics exceeds sports by a factor of roughly infinity) has happened. I saw it on Yahoo! en Español, no less — Foreign Policy magazine has named a Spaniard as one of the top five worst ex-presidents. Who else but Aznar, who, as they say, tried to pin the March 11, 2004 Atocha train bombings on ETA? Click here for top-notch sarcastic commentary: the original English or Yahoo!’s version. For those who dig my Berlin-Madrid vibe, check it out: Gerhard Schroeder is also on the list. Great stuff.

Aug
11

Although I’d wanted to escape August in Madrid altogether this summer, it looks like I won’t abscond to Berlin as soon as I’d hoped. Failing that, I’ve taken my cue from the Spanish, who know the north of Spain is the place to be in summer. This year Rosa hosted me a second time in La Coruña, which both summers has given me the fortitude to endure multiple stretches of upper 90-degree weather (35-degree-plus Celsius) in Madrid, without air-conditioning, of course.

Then, out of the blue, Desaparecido suggested a weekend road trip to Santander, on the Cantabrian coast, which I’d heard is lovely and had long wanted to visit. We’ve had our differences, of course, but we do seem to travel well together and this time was no exception. A car in Spain allows one to go to the tiny towns that are challenging to reach by bus and train. I recommend always saying yes to an invitation for a Spanish road trip (I only draw the line when there are numerous children involved).

When faced with the lovely Cantabrian coast and water surprisingly warm for the Atlantic, I suddenly realized I had never, in all the time I’ve been in Spain (1994, 2000, 2004, 2007) before moving here, swum in any Spanish ocean. Well, it was right into the water with me this time, to shake off the stuporous heat of Madrid. It was almost too sunny the first day, but the rain came through the second day, making for a lovely wistful walk along the beach, tawny sand dotted by rocks backed into misty verdant forests.

By the second day, to the delight of Desaparecido, son of a gallega, I had pronounced the food to be notably better in Galicia. The chipirones in Comillas looked great but were terribly salty. And the pulpo in San Vicente de la Barquera was rubbery compared to Rosa’s neighborhood pulpeira where it melts in one’s mouth. As Rosa later confirmed, Cantabria is for the views; Galicia is for the food.

Jul
24

As my regular readers know by now, I’m of the philosophy that it’s necessary to give every new country at least 18 months before the frustrations and cultural misunderstandings begin to subside. It’s interesting that I’ve found that speaking the country’s language doesn’t seem to affect that time frame much at all. I have to downgrade my overly optimistic evaluation, then, of language representing 90% of integration. It’s definitely a help, but there are so many other factors as well. I’m giving it somewhere on the order of 60-70%.

Now that I’m nearing that turning point when cultures start to reveal their secrets to an immigrant, I can muse about aspects that I’ve previously found simply unfathomable. In the last couple of weeks, comments from two men, one a Peruvian doctor and the other Desaparecido, that elusive man of the world, have me thinking about my disinterest in the opposite sex here. The Peruvian finds Spanish women quite unfeminine, whereas Desaparecido expresses it as being unable to “adapt to” Spanish women. I have the same reaction to Spanish men; the longer I’m here the more I suspect that they will never work for me. No matter, I knew from the beginning that for me Europe would always be about the immigrants. But still, it’s interesting to ask: what exactly is up in the state of Spain?

In January I had an interesting experience that I’ve meant to blog ever since. I’d managed to break a small plastic part on my brand new washing machine and I knew the repair would be costly. For some reason, I kicked into coquette mode, which always worked well in Latinamerica, where men are programmed to respond with gallantry. The repairman, as I hoped, waived the obligatory 50-euro repair fee, but made it quite clear that he expected a tip. I, thinking entirely too much like an American, gave him 15 euros, but clearly the tip he had in mind had to do with favors of a rather different sort. Dear readers, I can hardly blame the guy from arriving at that conclusion, but here’s the thing that distinguishes Spain from Latinamerica. This guy didn’t turn down the money and instead ask for my phone number which is what I’d expect from a Latinamerican. He actually accepted the money and then had the gall to ask me to go to bed with him. I’m still shaking my head over that one, honestly.

This post is getting rather too long, so I’ll head on to my main conclusion. There is a detached, intensely superficial aspect to many of the encounters between the sexes here. The one-night stand is the default in many sorts of social encounters, well beyond the fairly well-defined bar/club scene that one has to watch out for in the U.S. I’m coming to the lamentable conclusion that this is a mutual arrangement between many Spanish men and women. The men, poor dears, may simply be at a loss when dealing with the modern woman that is rapidly emerging in Spain. And many women seem quite clear they don’t want a lot to do with these Spanish men. Their solution, then? A certain devil-may-care promiscuity that this immigrant, who is far from being a prude, finds rotten, indeed.

Jul
10

There comes a time in every nomad’s life, I suppose, when one’s physical and psychic resources have been taxed to the limit (probably the reason I’m doing so little writing on this blog lately). There’s really little choice at that point other than to just stay put in the last place one happened to land. Sometime around the beginning of this year, the thought of packing up all my stuff even one more time to dump it into a shitty storage locker or someone’s basement, started to become simply too fatiguing to contemplate. After all, by my count, I’ve done it eight or ten times in the last two years, even, for over a year, doing it simultaneously in Berlin and Madrid.

The trick, then, is to finally settle into a place, to find some way to overcome the old restlessness, that need for change that approaches unhealthy addiction. It’s occurred to me that I’ve effectively lived here in my little house, despite my continued running off to Berlin, for going on 15 months. The last temporary sublet lease I signed was the spring of 2009, and although I was in Berlin three times this past winter and the U.S. once, I limited myself to crashing with friends and helping out with their rent.

It’s been going fairly well here, as I’m contenting myself with prosaic things like successfully saving the cherry tree from avian assault and tending organic tomatoes and corn from seeds from back home. Upon demand, I perform my assigned role of stroking this wild cat of mine into a stuporous mass of purr. I’ve had a housemate for nearly two months, a Spanish man who (amazingly) likes to cook and has taken to spontaneously thrusting homemade fruit shakes into my hand, knows how to clean and puts up with my television moratorium.

I still complain, often vehemently, about this place, but that’s necessary, I think, when one’s adapting to a new country. It’s heightened here as I increasingly suspect I’ll eventually become a permanent resident. Even so, Berlin still calls to me, though her charm is tempered by my increasing comfort in Spain. I can’t resist the need for that dark side, that difference, and the addiction to change is, I think, something I can permit myself, when my surrender is short but sweet.

May
26

One of the very nicest Spanish customs has got to be paella popular, where traditionally up to hundreds of people — essentially anyone who shows up — are fed from a huge paellera pot prepared over a bonfire. This still happens, and May tends to be the best month as I’ve been informed that when the weather starts to get nice is when people start to think of doing a paella popular. For example, less than two weeks ago, during the Fiestas de San Isidro in the park 2 blocks from my house, there was a paella popular prepared by professionals. I quizzed them and found out they’d been hired to feed 200. It was perfect paella, actually, and although I went alone, there were lots of very interactive older ladies (Spanish women are refreshingly extroverted in contrast to Germans) with whom to chat as I sat in the grass and basked in the sun.

At one of the urban gardens in which I participate, EstaEsUnaPlaza, during the III Jornada de Agroecología last Saturday, one food co-op pulled off an entirely competent paella popular. This coming Sunday, there will be another one by the urban garden itself. Originally a guerrilla garden, EstaEsUnaPlaza has an interesting history. After having their previous site bulldozed by the city, they negotiated to obtain the current one, where they’re now “legit”. However, there’s no water on site, so several times a week a couple dozen people get together to carry water by hand from a neighbor’s flat. Sunday’s paella popular, then, will be an inaugural party and fund-raiser to raise money to get a water hook-up. Just 5 little euros for ensalada, paella, sangria and fruta. Don’t miss out on this special little corner of Madrid, Sunday, May 30th. Activities start at noon and if all goes well, the paella should make an appearance around 2:30 or 3 PM.

May
14

It was probably a category error to have entitled my last post Madrid Movida because things are shaping up to be way more intense this weekend. The celebrations around the hundredth anniversary of Madrid’s Gran Vía are combined with the fete of Madrid’s local patron saint, San Isidro, whose day is tomorrow, May 15th. I experienced some of this last year, as I moved into my house, two blocks from Parque San Isidro, at the end of April. Two days ago they erected a Ferris wheel (as I write at my disk in front of a window overlooking the patio, I can see the wheel turning over the rooftops on the next block).

Regarding movida, here’s what I’m looking at. DocumentaMadrid started May 7th and continues through Sunday the 16th, with the prize-winning films having just been announced. It’s my contention that it’s best to just wait till the final weekend and attend the screenings of the prize-winners. Otherwise one risks seeing a lot of very indifferent documentaries. There are two exceptions: when one recognizes a favorite director or missed something critical from the Berlinale (last year, for example, the excellent Defamation and this year, the very nice Budrus which I was just able to screen). I’m going to time it so that I hit Gran Vía tomorrow night just as they block traffic and unfurl the kilometer-and-a-half-long carpet as advertised.

UPDATE: Pictures inserted of Gran Vía covered in blue carpet, in reference, presumably, to the saying De Madrid al cielo, as well as Parque San Isidro on the big saint’s night, May 15th.