Wednesday, March 30, 2011

cultural differences... some amusing, some not...

My goodness, where to start?

My first comment... the words customer service don't mean as much in some places, as they generally do to Australians. Or is it that I have just been going to the right places in Australia? Or, is "good customer service" only considered to be good when one is fluent in the language and cultural habits of a country?

Earlier today, I went to have lunch in what has become a favourite destination in the centro of Granada. The Plaza Bib Rambla is a lovely square a few blocks from my hotel, with restaurants around the perimeter and little alleyways of interesting shops leading in every direction from it. The lunch was lovely, as usual. But, something that was more obvious to me on this particular occasion, was the poor customer service. The waiters were more intent on conversing with one another and sharing stories of home life and jokes than getting their clients what they wanted. A cafe con leche took almost thirty minutes to receive. I have often joked in Australia about growing a beard whilst waiting to receive my order. Here, in the Bib Rambla, I almost literally grew one!

Luckily for the cafe, the food was great and thoroughly enjoyable, so I could not complain about the service - ultimately, it was worth the wait.

But, I realised that after weeks of travelling through this beautiful country, I have grown a little weary of not being able to apply a little pressure on waiting staff about the lengthy time taken to receive what I want. After we left the cafe, immediately opposite the front door we stopped. Here was a little shop-front, with a woman serving. My mother asked her if she sold any postage stamps. The woman was looking directly at us, then some of her friends passed by at that very moment. They were calling out to this woman from behind us, and this woman, rather than addressing our need, moved her head towards them, reciprocating their greetings whilst completely ignoring our question. I was amazed. When she finished laughing and answering her friends, she spoke to my mother, saying, finally, that she didn't have any stamps for sale. I stood there, agape.

This was a big contrast to the restaurant we ate in last night. I chose a little place near our hotel, purely for its name, La ermita. The translation? The Hermit. It's also a way of describing a way to contemplate and live out life by one's self. It's more of a concept than a person, if you know what I mean.

This place was more up-market than the cafe I just described in the Bib Rambla. Again, the food was impeccable, although presented in a far better way, which is more appealing to the palate. Of course, with such effort, the cost of a meal is much higher. The waiters were attentive, taking great care to explain anything on the menu we didn't understand. We were treated like queens. This made me ponder how the concept of customer service works... here, as in Australia, money talks. You pay for the service, as well as the food and the good experience, overall.

Sure, the food is mainly great everywhere, so far. But, when I don't pay as much for it, my frustration at the service sets in... leading me to the conclusion that this is a cultural difference, or culture shock on my part. I dislike the fact that I cannot express my disappointment, or insist, in an assertive way, that I should be receiving better service.

Perhaps I have chosen this subject to complain about in this blog post because of the hair-raising morning I had. Today, I had to pick up the car rental I had arranged in Australia for the next leg of our trip. It was easier to get from Granada to Murcia, to Cuenca, then Zaragoza by car, than taking a train back and forth to major cities to get to each place. So, off we went to AVIS to collect the compact Mercedes which was given to me. (The fact that it is a Mercedes ALONE makes me a little nervous about damaging the thing.)

I'm not sure if I mentioned this before, but the Spanish like to touch-park. They manage to get their compact cars into the tightest little parking spots... and how? Car moves forward, BANG, and stop. Car reverses, BANG, and stop. (BANG = tapping another's car forcefully)

I have been noticing the amount of cars which have scratches and dents all over them, throughout the trip. I'm sure that car insurance is only used here when there is major damage and a panel beater and/or complete overhaul is needed. Australians have coronaries at the slightest dent (unless they own a bomb), and run to the panel beater to fix it immediately.

The last time I was in Europe with a car rental, I totally freaked out when I saw a Frenchie banging my rented Citroen to park his car. I blurted out, in English: "Are you kidding, mate? This is a bloody rented car!", which, of course, was no use to me when the Frenchie didn't speak English.

So, since arriving in Spain, I have watched the drivers here - they're crazy too. They fly through the narrowest of streets. I have found myself hanging on to the Jesus-bar in the back seat of taxis on a few occasions. I remember a taxi driver going on an 80km zone at 120kms per hour. I don't white-knuckle often, but when I do, it's with good reason. This taxi driver needed to be locked up or have his licence revoked, one of the two.

I have also thought about my own car back home, a GIGANTIC Ford Falcon sedan, which would, no doubt, have gotten permanently wedged into a medieval intersection somewhere along the way. You appreciate the space we have in Australia a whole lot more when you're in old, claustrophobic city roads and streets in Spain.

This morning was scary. Keep in mind that I am driving a compact car here. I had to pick up the rental, and drive it on the wrong side of the road continuously. Then, I had to navigate the car down a narrow, narrow alleyway, that is considered to be a main thoroughfare. On either side of this road, scooters and motorcycles were parked, with their tail-ends hanging out on the street, making the space for cars even narrower. I was getting beeped at by motorists behind me, as I was taking things slowly - I didn't want to hit any of the parked bikes. Even though I took the greatest care, I still managed to brush my passenger-side mirror against the padded seat of a Vespa. This made me more nervous. Not the Mercedes! I'll be paying off that damage until I'm fifty!

Of course, it took even longer to get back to the hotel, as all the streets around the central part of Granada go in different directions. Some are one-way, some are not to be entered, some are restricted only to taxis and buses. That'd be fine, but the signs are strange to me - round, red-circled ones with crosses through them - wtf? Ah, of course! No parking allowed! How silly of me! If you're not a local, you'll have more than a little trouble knowing which street you are able to traverse safely and legally.

A scooter rider took pity on me... He spoke to us, telling us that we could follow him, after he asked where we were trying to get to. (See? The ability to speak Spanish helps!) This enormous gordo of a man on a itty-bitty little scooter led us to our hotel's street, and we gratefully gave him some Euros for his troubles, even though he did spit the worst exhaust fumes into our faces most of the way there. If I could have said so, I would have given him the money for his help, with a small comment about getting his scooter serviced and its shocks attended to. I mean, how long did he think the poor little thing would last?

The hotel's porter was amused when I gave him the keys to the Mercedes nervously, begging him to park the car for me under the hotel. I wasn't about to start attempting to park this GIANT compact car in a tiny, underground car park!

So, after that nerve-wracking experience, naturally, I practically ran to the Bib Rambla to calm down and have a nice lunch. It was only after I got there that I realised that I'd be insane to order my usual sangria - I'm driving now! I can't afford to have even the tiniest bit of alcohol in my blood when travelling on Spain's roads! It'll have to wait until the car is returned to AVIS at Zaragoza... six days away...

The question is... will I make it to Zaragoza in one piece? Time will tell...
If none of you ever hear from me again, you'll know what happened.

Hasta la vista, mis amigos... I hope!



Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Having seen the Alhambra for the second time this morning, I had a lot of time during my three-hour tour to look out over Granada and think about my impressions of Spain thus far.

Spain is confusing in the messages it puts out to one who is not a native. On the one hand, it is a passionate and fervent country, with a past full of turmoil and historically hard times under Franco. Funnily enough, as a result, the people of Spain living in it today, seem a little superficial to me. Now, before I get written complaints via email about this comment, let me explain myself...

I watch Spanish TV in my hotel rooms after a hard day of being a good tourist. Almost every channel I see touches on subjects in a very sensational, glib way... the 24-hour news channel is always showing the same headlines over and over, without presenting stories of any depth containing profound examination of issues that may be present. I can't help comparing the coverage of the same news story on Spanish television with the BBC World news channel, or with the coverage I have gotten in the habit of reading online via The Age web site. Even though I am not fluent in the Spanish language, I understand enough to know that issues and controversial, late-breaking news such as the recent Japanese tsunami are covered in a shallow and trivial manner. It leaves me unsatisfied and wanting to know more.

A contradiction to this is the Parliament of Spain. I have watched the gobeirno (government) of Spain addressing issues in their parliament. They do so in a very orderly fashion, each member having the opportunity to discuss each issue and put their opinion on the record, without harrassment, or interruption. A far cry from the Australians' conduct in parliament - particularly on the federal level. Down Under, we scream at one another, insult, cajole, embarrass, condescend and irritate in the interest of scoring political points and securing a better chance of winning at the next election. In Spain, even if the parties disagree with one another, they spend their time debating issues in a manner expected of adults, even referring to one another as usted (the polite way to call another person with respect).

These observations, in turn, have made me watch the Spanish community more carefully. I scrutinise their interactions whilst eating, drinking, talking, discussing... Previous impressions and use of words such as passionate and interactive to describe them are accurate, but again, I can't help now having the impression that, on many occasions, I probably wouldn't care too much to know what they're talking about.

This mystifies me. Where is the Spain that I have read about? Where is the deep and profound thinking that I see for myself in their artwork and cultural offerings? Where is the environment I have often longed to be a part of? Does one have to be fluent in the language to find out where these intellectuals seem to hide?

I have the feeling that I will feel far more at home in Barcelona. This is the city that houses Los Cuatro Gatos, a cafe that became a favourite meeting place for artists in the 20th century, Pablo Picasso included. Seeing more of Antoni Gaudí's amazing creations that Barcelona is famous for - in particular, I am looking forward to seeing how La Sagrada Familia has progressed since I was there in 2005. (This is the cathedral that Gaudí designed for the city, which is due for completion in 2026.)

This is the city of La Rambla, the main thoroughfare leading to Barcelona's port, which features an enormous amount of street performers, mime, musicians, street theatre. It is open 24/7 and I am going to have a marvellous time watching it in earnest from my hotel room balcony, when I am not actually spending time walking on it.

I have come to the conclusion that I need to learn more Spanish, and actually reside in one of this country's cities, behaving as a Spaniard, working, living, pursuing recreational activities in my spare time. Perhaps this will become a goal for me in the next few years? Perhaps it may not?

I also know that I cannot comment on what I have seen here with accuracy - I need to be alone, finding out what these people are about for myself, without using a translator, without hesitating to pursue a more meaningful exchange, in the interests of getting out of my comfort zone and really delving into what makes Spain and its people the way they are.

What saddens me is that I only have one lifetime to fulfil a desire such as this.

Until next time... hasta pronto mis amigos...



Saturday, March 26, 2011

guapa? i thought that was a grapefruit...

Still in Málaga, enjoying the ocean and the nice weather. But, a secret... I don't like Málaga. I have learnt that the tourists (consisting of mainly Brits and Americans) love to park here in Torremolinos - the suburb I am in by the shores of the Mediterrenean. I suppose this would be equivalent to being in a hotel in Middle Park or Port Melbourne.

Around the hotel are shops that are trying to be trendy, by selling the most abhorrent items, crappy towels, sunglasses, horrible postcards, t-shirts and clothes. IIt reminds me of walking through Dimmeys... not quite as good as Target or Kmart... ;)

As a result, there's not much to see around here. So, I have headed to the CBD of Málaga. Yesterday, we visited the Museo del Picasso - still enjoyable the second time. We also saw the Alcazabar and Roman Amphitheatre ruins next to it, followed by a trip to the Museo Interactivo de la Música, which had a lot of information about the history of music, along with interactive computer displays and actual instruments to play. Good for the kiddies... and we were the only kiddies there. It was worthwhile - and amusing to see my mother touching things that had signs stating No Tocar (Don't Touch) emphatically in Spanish. I'm sure the museum's attendants were glad to see our ultimate departure.

Before we got to the last museum, we stopped on a road nearby for a break to consult the map. My mother has an annoying habit of asking everyone around us the same question about five times. It is epspecially annoying when I know the answer, but because I am not a local, I am not to be believed. She is a very nervous traveller.

So, in typical style, as I consulted the map, she spotted a Tourist Information Booth, and ran in that direction to answer the question I was on the verge of answering myself. She took so long, I was wondering if she had gotten lost on the way there, and was asking someone for directions to the Info Booth.

While I was waiting patiently for her to return, a Spaniard was walking towards me from the opposite direction, singing. He caught my attention, as he was singing the beautiful sounds of flamenco that I love to listen to. So, as I enjoyed hearing this snippet of his performance, I smiled at him as he passed. He did a little double-take and came back to stand in front of me.

He said, "Hola guapa!", followed by some more Spanish that was spoken too fast for me to fully understand. I replied "Lo siento, yo no hablo español. Un poquito, nada mas..." (I'm sorry, I don't speak Spanish. A little, nothing more...)

Guapa? Why was this man calling me a grapefruit? I was intrigued. (Before I go on, apparently guapa does not mean grapefruit. Click here for a definition, if you're curious.)

I didn't wait for him to say anything, and asked "Canto flamenco?" (Singing flamenco?)

He smiled broadly... happy I was interested enough to ask. "Claro que si!" (But of course!) was his response. Then, he asked me something I couldn't understand... Perhaps my expression was quizzical, as he explained further with actions. He asked me the question again slowly, this time showing an imaginary ring on the wedding finger.

Ahhhh... I understood now. He wanted to know if I was married. LOL

I laughed and said no... and then he asked me if I had any children. RSVP and eHarmony eat your hearts out. Come to Spain... you can find a man quick smart here! Still laughing, I told him in poor Spanish, no, I did not have children either. He liked that... and proceeded to sit next to me, smiling in a different way. More of a leer this time. It's funny... how sleazy can mean the same thing in one's body language no matter what country you're in.

I handled him the same way I have others... polite, but firm about not being ready to jump into bed just because he smiled at me. Although, what a temptation he was! He could have been Antonio Banderas' long lost twin brother. No matter... I didn't have to control myself. My mother was running back to where I was quite fast when she spotted a strange man sitting next to me.

If ever you want someone to stop hitting on you, here's a tip... take your mother with you. It arrests the entertainment value immediately. ;)

I watched him walk away as my mother was telling me what she found out at the Tourist Info Booth. Exactly what I already knew, what a shock! So, we made our way to the museum...

Today, we have been lazy, and stayed in and around the hotel... watching the waves, listening to the ocean, people-watching from our balcony, as we play Canasta. On the way back from lunch on the beach, we stopped to buy El País, the national newspaper in Spain.

What do I find out??? Antonio Banderas was in Málaga today, making a special apprearance in the opening of the new Carmen Thyssen Museum! The one day I wasn't in Málaga during my stay here! But, what's this? He'll stay in Málaga until Easter... hmmmm... maybe I'll head to the CBD again tomorrow, and do some Antonio-spotting... Heaven knows it'd be more entertaining than visiting one of the numerous churches open for tourists around here.

Wish me luck!
Hasta la vista, mis amigos!



Thursday, March 24, 2011

málaga... a place of crashing waves, picasso and flags...

We have arrived in Málaga, the birthplace of Pablo Picasso. Our hotel room has ocean views, and I have been here a few hours already and I have not tired of hearing the waves crashing on the beach below. It's quite choppy today, and even though the sun's not out, and the skies are grey, it is indeed a magnificent view.

I know what you're thinking... Flags? Why flags?

Well, Málaga is also the birthplace of Antonio Banderas. I always find the translation of Spanish names amusing. The literal translation of this gorgeous man's name is Tony Flags.
Julio Iglesias? Julio Iglesias = July Churches. Placido Domingo, the opera singer? His name's Peaceful Sunday. Penelope Cruz... Hmmm... well, if you called Penelope by her nickname, Pene, then a literal translation of her name would be Penis Cross.

Ok, I think I'll leave it there... I think you understand my point.

So, here we are, all geared up for the days ahead. We leave for Granada, and the Alhambra on Sunday. But, before then, we have so much Picasso to see... and the old Moorish ruins of mosques and the Roman amphitheatre in the heart of Málaga awaits.

Before we left Cordoba, we glimpsed the Mala Muerta - the story behind this edifice is interesting. Apparently, a Moorish Caliph went to war, and when he returned, he was told that his wife had been unfaithful. He then had his wife killed for her crime. But, later on, he found out that she had actually been faithful, and she was killed wrongly. So, as punishment to himself, and to grieve for the wife he loved so much, he built this tower, Mala Muerta (which means "woman mistakenly killed") locked himself in it, and died there of grief.

Good riddance, if you ask me...

Also, we went to visit the Medinat Al-Zahara - a caliphate palace, which was built under the mandate of Abd al-Rahmann III from 940 onwards. Of popular myth amongst Cordobans is that the medina was built by Abd al-Rahmann III as a declaration of his love for one of his concubines, al-Zahara. This is not true. I also found this myth difficult to digest when I learnt that this caliph had a harem consisting of over 600 concubines. What made al-Zahara so special? And if she was so special, why didn't she tell the caliph to be exclusive and abandon the other 599 concubines?

Regardless, the medinat was a fascinating visit. I could see the amazing history behind its construction. It was only discovered in the outskirts of Cordoba in 1918, and it is still undergoing archealogical digs as more and more is unearthed. The sad part is, above the medinat is a monastery which apparently ransacked the medinat much later for building materials for its own construction.

That seems to be a constant story in the South of Spain. Old Moorish architecture, mosques and Arab designs converted to cathedrals and images of Jesus and Mary when the Christians took over from the Muslim rule in Spain's history. Perhaps I'm biased, but I find the Arab caligraphy, archiecture and design far more interesting, beautiful and appealing. It saddens me to see how the Christians obliterated a lot of it in the name of God. In fact, we have made a pact not to see any more Christian buildings. Spain is FULL of churches, cathedrals and monasteries. We'd much rather see more art and Spanish culture in other places of interest. It sounds awful, but after you've seen one or two cathedrals, the rest all start to look the same, and you find yourself skimming over the bits you've seen before.

Now, we're located at a far cry from all that. We're by the beach, surounded by what I would call a huge tourist trap. LOL The shops along the beach are filled with what I've seen many times before... McDonald's, Burger King (Hungry Jacks for Aussies), Ben & Jerry's (ice-cream), shops selling sunnies, t-shirts and fridge magnets galore. I am happy to hear the ocean from my hotel room, but am eager to get back to Málaga's CBD, where all the history and culture is. I feel like I did when I visited Nice, in the south of France. All affluence and show, and no substance.

Not all is bad though... we've managed to find a decent paella down there by the beach. The best I've ever had in Spain thus far. I wonder if we'll find one better before returning to Australia?

Before I sign off... I must mention my tapas experience in Cordoba. We found a small tapas bar opposite the infamous Calleja de las Flores called Tapas 101. Tapas are amazing. Small pinches of food, each costing 2-Euro. One orders four or five pinches/tapas, and one feels quite full by the end of the courses.

One I has was Berenjenas con Miel (Aubergines with honey). At first, I was a little repelled by the concept of mixing the two flavours, but as always, I give new things a try, and if I don't like them, I never return to try again. These aubergines were divine! The best tapas I've ever had! Apparently, they're a favourite Cordoban recipe, and I could understand why. Yummmmm....

These were accompanied by Croquetas Bacalao (Cod Croquets), Cogillitos de Lechuga (Garlic Lettuce), sangria (of course), and finished with Arroz con Leche (Rice pudding). A gastronomic adventure... So glad I'm walking asround an awful lot, otherwise I'd definitely be returning to Australia wider than when I left it.

Ok... tomorrow, Picasso...
I wonder if Tony Flags will be floating around anywhere, paying a visit to the rellies? That'd be another kind of yummmm...

Hasta la vista, mis amigos!


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

goodbye seville, hello cordoba...

Last night we dined at Alfonso XIII, which is located next to the old cigar factory of Carmen fame. An impressive sight to behold... Sevillian tiles with elaborate decoration on the walls, arches that remind you of the Arab influence in the Spanish architecture of the South of Spain. Sheer luxury... the seats were comfortable, the service impeccable. Just one thing... the food was disappointing and overpriced. LOL

Ah well, can't win 'em all...

Despite this hiccup, it was a memorable last day in Seville, as we got to walk around the old part of the city after dark. It never ceases to amaze me how much nightlife Spain has. I felt it more in Seville than in Madrid. The Sevillians are proud of their city, and enjoy it to the fullest. As a non-Spanish speaker, even an outsider such as I can feel the love they have for their home. They are passionate about their history and fervent in celebrating all kinds of festivals within it.

One thing that has been constant since we got to Spain is our use of taxis. Now, before you freak out, imagining the cost of these trips, let me say that they are much cheaper than taxis in Melbourne. A trip across the city, equivalent to the length of a trip from say, Melbourne University, to the Victorian Arts Centre, costs about 5-Euro. Last I checked, the Aussie dollar was equivalent to about 75-Euro cents. It's still a lot cheaper than taking a taxi in Melbourne.

Besides, with my leg giving me issues after a long day, I am extremely grateful to have some pain relief by taking a taxi. I have never been a fan of public transport in Melbourne - I'm certainly not going to start being a fan of it in a city I know very little about.

The good part about taking taxis are the taxi drivers. They are the most colourful characters you'll meet, and know the cities they work in, inside and out. They always provide you with the scoop on the best places to eat, visit, avoid, and they can enlighten you on the cultural habits of the locals that the average tourist may not be aware of.

We've even had taxi drivers that will happily recite the work of a famous poet, just because we happened to pass a monument dedicated to a writer of historical note. We've had singers, wine connoisseurs, complainers of the country (who have lived elsewhere in Europe and seem to be unhappy with their current living arrangements), jokers, and desperate singles trying to pick up one of their passengers (not me, my mother... LOL).

Today, in Cordoba, we had a lovely taxi driver who was pleased to give us a tour of Cordoba, with explanations of its history and all. Sure, it took longer to get back to our hotel, but since we're only in Cordoba for two whole days, we won't be able to see everything there is to see, and were glad to at least be driven past the sights we won't be able to enjoy before we leave for Málaga.

We got to Cordoba from Seville at 9am this morning. We stopped at a tourist information booth at the train station to get a map so we could find our way around. Before we knew it, we had signed up to see a show of Andalusian horses at the former royal stables in the heart of Cordoba. Such beautiful horses, and so smart, following all the instructions delivered by their trainers en cue. I filmed parts of the show - perhaps I will add them to my YouTube account when I return to Australia.

This is my second time in Cordoba, and I am still greatly impressed and overwhelmed by the age of the buildings and monuments here. Part of the city still preserves a wall, constructed by the Romans when they were here. Of course, there's the mezquita (mosque) that Cordoba is renowned for... I'm sure everyone has seen its red and white arches at some point or another. This building dates back to the 720AD, from memory. I will find out for sure tomorrow, when I visit it for the second time in my life.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Cordoba is one of the places in Spain that I would happily reside in if I ever got the chance to. There's something very relaxing about this city, it seems to have a very easy-going way of life.

Well, tomorrow is another day, and a big one too, I suspect. So much to see and do here, and so little time. Not to worry, I'll keep you posted - internet access is free in our hotel. Yay!

Hasta luego, mis amigos!


Friday, March 18, 2011

flamenco and... more questions....

Yes, last night was the visit to Tabloa de Arenal, a place to dine and watch flamenco. Amazing, entertaining, exciting, passionate... I could not take my eyes of the performers, which consisted of singers, guitarists and, of course, dancers. The footwork of the dancers is stupefying - I always have trouble understanding how the human brain can get the feet to move that fast, and with such precision.

Even though I thoroughly enjoy watching a good flamenco performance, I am always a little sad by the end of the night. I wish I had studied the art of flamenco myself. The music inspires me, the expressions on the faces of the dancers, the dramatic gestures and emphatic movements which proclaim proudly that life is something to be savoured and lived to the fullest. Unfortunately, when I was young, I was not allowed to take up flamenco classes - something which always leaves me with a feeling of regret and longing for a pursuit that could have been. Of course, now, it would be physically impossible for me to start any kind of classes - my motorcycle accident took care of that. So, I watch, and pretend that I am up there dancing with them, feeling the heat and the passion as well.

If you have never seen a good flamenco performance, I suggest you watch a particular film, to understand what I talking about. There is a flamenco version of the story of Carmen, which is a famous opera by the composer, Bizet. Not to worry... The flamenco version is not sung - it's a modern interpretation of the story, not the music. (I know that opera doesn't float everyone's boat.)

Anyway, this film, also titled Carmen, is directed by Carlos Saura, and the flamenco in it is marvellous. The film provides the viewer with a much better undertanding of the passion behind flamenco, and the work involved in perfecting the skill of dancing it.

The words I type here will never do the art of flamenco justice. It's a feeling, almost indescribable to someone like me. One has to watch it to get an idea of what I mean. So, I cannot go on about my experience in the tablao last night - it is an extremely personal one. All I can say is that it was truly amazing and uplifting, and I'm looking forward to seeing more when I get to Barcelona.

So, I will move on to the questions that I have about what I have seen so far in the beautiful country...

Walking through the narrow streets of Seville, I wonder about silly things like garbage collection. Yesterday, I noticed that there were a few bins, about the size of the wheelie bins we use in Australia, standing out on the street. There is no access for cars, let alone trucks, on these narrow streets. How is the garbage collected? Surely, garbologists don't have to wheel each bin individually out of the old part of the city to the main road for it to be collected every week? That concept would require a LOT of staff in order to maintain the routine of collecting it. I hope I will work up the nerve to ask the hotel staff before I check out on Sunday and move on to Cordoba.

In Toledo, I had another question, which was ultimately answered via observation. Toledo is an old city, dating back to settlement in the fifteenth century, I think. The streets there are also narrow. The last time I was in Toledo, in 2005, I had a car rental. I was scared sh*tless driving through Toledo's streets, even though I had a tiny Citroen hatchback. The streets were so narrow, I tucked in my side mirrors, as I felt that driving down them was an extremely tight squeeze. I was so scared about damaging the car, which was not mine.

Amazingly, the locals whizz up and down them at 40-60kms per hour, happily. I watch them in awe. thanking my lucky stars that I'm not driving through them again this time around. However, one thing I have noticed since, is that MANY cars here have dents and scratches all over them. It doesn't take a genius to wonder why.

In my first week in Madrid, there were 15 deaths on the road in the city. The footage of the aftermath was scary - the cars looked as though they had been through a wringer - they were almost unrecognisable as cars. It made me a little nervous about the prospect of drving the car I have organised to get from Granada, to Cuenca, Murcia and finally, Zaragoza, before I return to taking trains again. I know I will be driving like a little granny on the right-hand lane (which is the slow lane in this country).

So another question arises... will I die in Spain? LOL

I keep asking the locals about scooter rentals - there don't seem to be any! Scooters are extremely popular here - a perfect vehicle for all the narrow streets. I see motorcycles too, but my impression is that a motorcycle is just too powerful a vehicle for zipping around on these streets. I saw one take off when a red light changed to green yesterday. The rider quickly got up into third gear, built up his momentum, and then dropped immediately back into first to stop at the next intersection. I now understand why we have far more motorcycles in the cities in Australia - we have far more space! Our streets are wider, there are more lanes, and the intersections are further apart. Plus, we have far more wide, open space. There ain't no Nullarbor here, folks!

A scooter would be perfect... but, then I think of what I've seen many times here already. Cars change lanes without indicators, or checking their blind spots. Scooters have been cut off many times by cars - it's amazing that they still happily zip around, squeezing into the traffic and taking short-cuts whenever they can.

Moving on... no matter how hard I try, I cannot get used to the late dinners here! 8.30pm is an EARLY dinner in Spain. People in restuarants, where we make dinner reservations, seek clarification when we ask for a booking for 8 or 8.30pm. They are stunned that we would want to eat so early. They try, unsuccessfully, to persuade us to have a 9.30/10pm booking instead.

Since I have found out that the Spaniards don't really get a siesta in the afternoon any more, I often wonder how they have the energy to rise for work at 7pm, start work between 8/9am, and go right through to knock-off time at 6 or 7pm... returning home to freshen up for dinner at 9pm! wtf?? I'm sure I'd collapse in a drained heap if I stay here longer than 6 weeks!

So, what doesn life mean to these people? They spend a lot of time with one another, partaking in tapas, pinchos and aperitivos in restaurants, bodegas and cafes all over the city. When do they think about their lives? Is there time for reflection? Or is their experience all one big rush through the day, catching up with friends and loved ones before they go to sleep? I often find myself wishing my Spanish were more fluent so that I could ask some of these questions. I guess I might have to walk down the same path as Earnest Hemingway, and actually live here, immerse myself, and start by slowly building relationships to finally understand if the Spanish, generally, are as happy as they seem to be on the surface.

Ahhh.... don't you love it when the questions that arise in your head don't always have answers? It can make you mad, or make you philosophise more than usual in pursuit of "truth".

Just on that point...

Yesterday, I also managed to go and visit the Auditorio de la Cartuja, which is located on the other side of the Guadalquivir. (By the way, the name of this river is Arabic - it means "Big River". There is also a place in Spain called Guadalajara, another Arabic name. This one, I always find funny, as it literally means "River of Sh*t" - some fascinating trivia for you all. LOL)

At the Cartuja, there are exhibitions of contemporary art. We were there for hours. One artist by the name of Alfonso Jaar, had a Marxist Lounge. In this room, which had red walls, black couches, and a red neon light with the name Marx Lounge, there was a huge table in the centre. On it, were numerous books, lying face up. Mainly Spanish titles, but about a third were English. All titles were about Marx, Engels, Che Guevara, Socialism, Existentialism, all kinds of modern philosophy and thinkers.

I took ages looking at all the books, wishing I could spend a few weeks reading some of the titles here. Yes, it was an "art work", but you could touch and feel the books, and sit on the couches to read them, if you so desrired.

I found authors I recognised from my own reading pursuits... John Pilger, Tariq Ali, Ryszard Kapuscinski... I was so overwhelmed with the array, I took photos, so that I could chase up some of the titles when I return to Melbourne.

Yes... as I stated earlier... questions, questions and more questions... I will found out some of the answers in the near future I suppose. And if I don't, oh well... not all questions can or will be answered.

Hasta la vista, mis amigos...



Thursday, March 17, 2011

blessings and a magical ball...

Women offering blessings and palm readings are always to be seen around the main tourist attractions in Seville. I am told that they are gypsies seeking money for these services. I suppose that they are the Spanish equivalent of the Romany people in France which the French are trying to eject from their country.

Yesterday afternoon, whilst enjoying a coffee outside the Plaza de España, I was approached by an old woman dressed in brightly coloured clothes, with a rose in her hair, offering me a green leaf of some sort. She was telling me that the green leaf was for blessings and luck, and she then proceeded to grab my hands to read my palms. Apparently, I will have a long life and two children. Uh-huh...

This went on for a while, and I have to admit, I got impatient. I knew she wanted money, and I tried to dissuade her by pretending not to understand a word she was saying. At the same time, I felt sorry for her. But, then I remembered another experience with these gypsies the last time I was in Seville: three women surrounded me, two taking me by the arms, the third offering me blessings with her sprig of rosemary, marking the cross on my forehead. I got nervous, as I knew they were trying to pick my pockets. Thankfully, at the time, I had my passport and money in a pouch around my neck - if they wanted to rip me off, they would have had to get into my blouse.

These memories came flooding back when this woman took my hands to read my palms. I resisted by repeating the words "No, gracias" over and over to get the message through that I wasn't interested. Of course, she ignored me, and kept telling me wonderful things about my future before she lowered the boom. "Dinero", she stated expectantly.

It was at this point that my mother interrupted and said to her in Spanish: "We are not interested, Please leave us alone."

Boy, did that change this women's tone. The smile immediately disappeared from her face, and she turned to my mother and snarled "Eres muy mala!" (You're very bad!)

My mother retorted, with equal vitriol: "Si, soy mala!" (Yes, I am bad!)

The woman roughly let go of my hands, and walked away, repeating the insult over and over to my mother, as if she were warning the other customers present that they should avoid this brujita (witch).

My sympathy for this woman completely disappeared. I was on the verge of giving her something, because she did look like life had gotten the better of her, and times were tough. But, witnessing the ominous change in her face when we insisted we weren't interested, it was like seeing her eat one of the oranges from the trees that were everywhere!

Despite this unsavoury experience, the night improved. We didn't end up going to the tablao (we had the wrong night). So instead, we went to a restaurant called Puerto Delicias. The dinner and sangria was lovely... but, I must make mention of the dessert I had. The waiter came out with a plate and a small jug. He put the plate in front of me, announcing what it was. I saw a halved strawberry, some grated chocolate around it, and a large dark chocolate ball about the size of a clenched fist.

Before I could ask any questions, with a flourish, the waiter started to pour the contents of the jug over the chocolate ball. As he did so, I realised that the jug contained hot, melted white chocolate. As he poured this hot chocolate over the ball, it melted to reveal a little cake inside. Before I knew it, the cake was at the centre of my plate, next to the strawberry, surrounded by a brown and white moat of delightful, heavenly sweetness.

Ahh! I was amazed at this miraculous, magical ball of dessert. So much so, my mouth was agape as I watched this amazing event unfold before my eyes. The taste? Equally as divine. Had I just had a religious experience? I didn't wait to consider this. I immediately got to work, spooning the goodness in.

If any of you ever go to Seville, I HIGHLY recommend this place. The rest of the meal was great - the dessert was just a perfect way to end a perfect dining experience.

I'll leave it there for now... It's 10am here in Seville, and there are more things to see and enjoy out there. The rain from Toledo has abated here, and the sun is out and shining. I think it's time for another promenade to see what else can be discovered.

Hasta la vista, mis amigos!




Seville is nicer than I remember. Our hotel in in the old part of Seville, an area which cars cannot access. The streets are no more than two metres wide, and everywhere you look, there is something beautiful and historic to see. I am starting to notice more of the Arabic influence of the Moors now - plaza names, architecture, Arabic scripture...

Whilst walking past the Alcázar of Seville last night, I heard beautiful Spanish guitar music that seemed familiar. I paused, wondering why I knew the style so well. As I got closer to the busker, I realised who was playing. A guitarist by the name of Carlos del Rio. How did I know this man? The last time I was in Seville in 2005, I heard him playing on the street then, and bought his CD, which I have added to my iPod. No wonder I recognised the sound and style. When he stopped for a break (to file his nails, which were almost as long as mine currently are), I asked him if the CD he was now selling was the same as the one he sold to me six years ago. His eyes opened wide - six years ago? Of course, his curiosity was piqued and I explained to him who I was, and how I knew of him. I got the feeling that he doesn't have many fans or groupies. LOL

It turned out that he spoke fluent English and French, having lived in Canada for some time. Therefore, our conversation was quite lengthy. We talked mainly of music. He seemed surprised that I, an Australian, knew who Paco Peña was. I told him that I was about to buy tickets to see his impending show in Melbourne in July. He then spoke of influences... Arabic, even the classical composer, Bach.

It was during this discussion that he started playing samples of each of the styles of music that influenced much of the traditional Spanish guitar music heard today. It was quite amazing hearing a composer such as Bach (who I never particularly liked too much), played in a Spanish style on a classical guitar, rather than on a harpsichord, or piano. I was very impressed.

So, there I was, standing for about half an hour or so, while I had a highly illuminating and fascinating discussion with a busker, who was willing to enlighten me on other famous Spanish guitarists, and their influences. Of course, it goes without saying that I bought another of his CDs. I can't wait to add this to my iPod when I return home in April.

All around the older part of Seville, there are orange trees fully laden with ripe fruit. I was starting to get frustrated that I couldn't reach any of the oranges, as they looked so large, appealing and ready to eat.

Before I go on, I should explain...
Throughout my trip through Spain thus far, I have had a total of three oranges with breakfast. They were the most perfect oranges that I've ever had... so sweet, and juicy. Nothing like the tasteless ones I've been having in Melbourne, which I have eaten in the past, begrudgingly.

So, you can imagine why I was always keeping an eye out for an orange in one of the trees that was within my reach. I wanted another slice of heaven. I thought that they were quite popular with the passers-by, as all the lower branches were always bare, and the higher branches that were just out of reach, were heavily laden with attractive, ripe fruit.

As it turns out, it's probably for the best that I never managed to pick one. Today, when we stopped for a coffee in a street cafe, we asked the waitress if we were allowed to pick the oranges from the trees. Perhaps there was a local law in effect that we weren't aware of as tourists?

She told us not to eat them. Not because we would get into trouble, but because they were all extremely bitter. Probably best used in a marmalade or something like that. She said that the locals always could spot a tourist, because they picked the oranges, and made the funniest faces when they ate what they picked. Thankfully, I did not become a source of amusement for the locals too.

Wandering around this city, I hear so many foreign languages being spoken. English, French, German, Portuguese... even a few that I have difficulty recognising. What amazes me the most is that I also hear the Spanish hotel staff speaking to their patrons in these languages. I often wonder how many languages they each speak. Very impressve.

Well, tonight we're off to a tablao... to see some raw, intimate flamenco being performed, accompanied by some sangria and some tapas. Should be a great night... and a late one. These performances can last until the early hours of the morning. I'm not sure I will too... as sangria tends to make me sleepy after the laughter and fun is over. Time will tell... and so will my future blog posts.

Before I sign off, thanks to those of you who have posted comments on my blog, and sent me emails, commenting on the things I have written about. I'm glad you're enjoying reading my paltry offerings. Hopefully, I will be able to bore some of you with the endless amount of photographs I have been taking. I can't help it - there is some beautiful detail in the things I have seen so far. I find it hard to pass them by without trying to capture what I found so appealing. I am intent on preserving memories of this beautiful country. Who knows if I'll ever have the pleasure and opportunity to return here. Let's hope I'm not the only one that appreciates the images I have snapped.

Hasta pronto, mis amigos!



Wednesday, March 16, 2011

madrid to toledo...

A funny thing happened on our last night in Madrid. My mother asked a bouncer for directions to a restaurant that we had made a booking for dinner. I tried to stop her, but to no avail. What she didn´t realise was that she was asking a doorman in front a striptease establishment.

¨Please, señor, can you tell me where this restaurant is?¨ - was the rough translation.

He was a pleasant enough chap, even if he did have his two front teeth missing.

It turned out that he was Brazilian... an irony, perhaps?

So there we were, the three of us - my mother having a lovely chat with this man, asking him all about his origins, when finally, she asked him if there were good drinks offered inside the place he was guarding.

His response? ¨Ahh... no... I don´t think you´d like the drinks that are offered here, señora. They come with da chickie-chickies¨

What can I say? It´s never a dull moment with my mother. She´s always the last one to get with the program. The poor thing was horrified that she was enquiring about going into a Spanish strip joint. Of course, I filled her in, after much mirth on my part.

So, on we went to the restuarant, where we had an over-priced, below-average paella and some average sangria.

The next day, we took a train to Toledo, where I am now typing to you from. (That was yesterday, as their internet connection was almost non-existent, so I gave up trying to post this.) A wonderfully picturesque city - with photo opportunities at every turn. I would live here happily if it weren´t for the religious icons and images encountered at every turn.

We had lunch yesterday in a popular plaza, and I was shocked to see a group of people holding a mini-protest against abortion in the centre of the square... in the name of Christianity and ¨goodness¨.

Again, I wish I could speak Spanish more fluently... I would have approached them and said something along the lines of: ¨You mean that the ten abortions I´ve had so far were not the will of God, and I'm going to hell?¨

Of course, I said no such thing, and gave them a unimpressed look instead. Mental note to self: learn Spanish, you idiot!

So, here I am... typing this post in a painfully slow way, as I´m using the hotel´s computer in the foyer. Internet access here is free, but my little laptop kept failing to connect. I have an inkling why - I am seated at a computer with an ancient-looking 14¨monitor, still operating on Windows 98. The RAM is driving me mad, as it is thinking really hard about having more than one window of IE open... Tabs! What are those? *cringe*

So, normally, I would write a lot more, but this is just too annoying.
I don´t want to die here, waiting for a page to refresh.

I´ll sign off, and write again when I get to Seville tomorrow...

But, before I do, I want to say that I am horrified to see the events that are transpiring in Japan - how devastating! I hope that none of you have loved ones visiting there at present, and that all is peaceful and calmer in your world. But, my heart goes out to the Japanese - how they must be suffering...

All the best, mis amigos... ¡Hasta mañana!


Sunday, March 13, 2011


We visited the Real Academía - another gallery, which used to be under the direction of the famous Spanish painter, Francisco de Goya. A lot of his work was featured here, and when we completed viewing the artwork on an entire level of the exhibition space, we went to another area called Calcomographía, which is an early form of lithography. To our disappointment, this section was closed for the day.

A man greeted us at the entrance to this section of the gallery, holding a pair of cotton gloves, which immediately caught my attention. I deduced that he was involved with some kind of art preservation, or perhaps was an expert in carbon dating or something similar.

What ensued was extremely interesting. Firstly, he explained to us the meaning of calcomographía... in Spanish, of course. I was surprised at how much I understood of what he said. I interjected with "lithographía?" and he nodded and smiled, and said it was indeed an early form of lithography.

This man was quite a character, and you could tell he was highly intelligent, by the way he spoke and the words he used. I have come to the realisation that the bigger the word in Spanish, the more I understand what is being said. The long words are easily recognisable to me... case in point... lithographía is lithography in English. See what I mean?

He was shorter than me, this man. He had a beard, crazy, greying hair and wore thick glasses. He reminded me of Professor Calculus of Herge's Tintin fame. He was highly intriguing, and fascinating to watch as he spoke, whether you understood him or not. You could tell he was passionate about his work, and spoke with the usual Spanish enthusiasm, accompanied by his own style of animated sweeping gestures and melodramatic movements.

I'm not sure how it happened, but we got to the topic of bull-fighting, a popular ritual and pastime in Spain. My mother mentioned to this man how I cried profusely when I saw the movie Carmen, a film adaptation of the opera, starring Placido Domingo.

For those of you who don't know, the film opens with a bull-fight, and is quite confronting. A bull is slowly tortured and finally "conquered" in its ultimate slaying by the toreador (bull-fighter).

Well, this started another animated reaction from Professor Calculus... He could not comprehend why we were so affronted by this important recreation that was richly steeped in Spanish history. He defended the ritual poorly by saying that Western governments of the world (with particular reference to the Americans) kill people all the time, and this killing of the bull was not as bad as that. A poor justification in my book.

Unbelievably, he also went on to say that we keep battery hens in cages in an inhumane way - at least the bull dies in the open air. I couldn't believe was I was partially hearing. I looked to my mother for clarification. Was my poor understanding of Spanish leading me to believe that this man was defending the act?

In retrospect, I am sorely regretting that I don't speak Spanish more fluently. I would have had a thing or two to say in refute to this man's strongly held beliefs.

The good news is that the Spanish population is almost evenly divided on the continuation of the pagan practice. I thought bull-fighting had been completely abolished, but it still thrives, and there is change on the horizon.

Regardless of considerably disagreeing with this man, I thoroughly enjoyed meeting him. He was so engaging and full of life, I found it hard to ignore or dismiss him. I have never listened so hard in my entire life... and I'm glad I did. I hope there are more interactions such as this one coming up in the near future. I relish it.

Another person we met after our visit to the Palacio Real that morning (before the gallery) was in a coffee shop we were sheltering in from the rain. A waiter who greeted our arrival to the cafe with great enthusiasm. He was particularly attentive after he found out I was from Australia. I appreciated his sense of humour as well. My mother has this wonderful habit of telling the people we meet that she is from Chile and that I am her daughter from Australia, that doesn't speak much Spanish. She announced this to the waiter, as per routine, and he retorted with "... and I am from Cadíz", as if he didn't give a damn about her announcement. I laughed heartily, and was intrigued enough to intently watch him speak with my mother.

He could have been John Malkovich's long-lost twin brother - he had the same face, the same mannerisms. I loved watching this man. Unfortunately, I didn't get to talk to him for too long, but when I was preparing to leave, he took my hand, as if about to shake it, held it with both of his hands, and said in poor English, "Take it easy" followed by a large smile. "Muchas gracias" I said in response with a large smile as well.

It is these interactions with the locals that I appreciate so much. They cannot be experienced in quite the same way in Australia. But, it gives me pause... if I were to experience similar interactions in my home city, would I react in the same way? Or would I avoid and dismiss them without consideration?

As I get older, I savour interactions of all kinds with the people I encounter, at home, or overseas. I hope I have the wisdom to recognise them as worthwhile and enriching.

Until next time...
Hasta luego amigos!


Friday, March 11, 2011

a great monastery...

Today, I saw the monastery at Escorial. Actually, its name is inaccurate. The monastery forms only part of it. It was also a royal palace for Carlos V and his wife, Isabel. But, a royal palace with a difference. It was quite plain and understated for a royal abode. The rooms were simple, the most ornate feature being some of the doors, which were hand carved in Germany. Even the king's throne was quite unremarkable - apparently, it was specially constructed for him to assist with his painful gout. But, if you ask me, this "special chair" looked extremely uncomfortable - I didn't envy that luxury in the slightest.

Far more impressive were the tombs in the pantheon. In the bowels of the palace were the sarcophagi of all the dead kings and queens in the history of Spain, since Carlos I, who doubled as Emperor of Germany. The grandfather of the current King of Spain is kept here too, and it is expected thst when the current king and queen die, they will take up residence here as well.

The whole place was cold. As it was constructed of stone, and only last week, the palace was covered in 15 centimetres of snow, I was grateful for the endless stairs to climb when leaving the crypts in the Pantheon.

We climbed and climbed giant steps, as we were taken into the cathedrsl above the tombs... as always, a very impressive sight. The dome in the cenral part of the room being about 95 metres high. Of course, the artwork detail in the frescoes and ornamentation never fail to impress me in the cathedrals I have seen in Europe so far. As an atheist, it astonishes me that human beings spent so much time and devoted so much attention to create magnificent homages to a God, which according to me, does not exist.

The monastery itself is still home to about 60 monks. This section of the building was closed off to the public. But, we were taken into the library... Behind glass cabinets were illuminated manuscripts and tomes dating back to the 16th century. Here, I was astounded, as the only preservation methods in this library were keeping the precious books out of direct sunlight. Apparently, people are able to look at them still, with special permission from the monks. There has been no digitisation of the contents of the library, and even I could see that the keeping of these precious books left a lot to be desired.

Carlos V insisted that these books were added to the collection from all parts of the world. He wanted to keep all the information ever published, similar to a State or National Library's legal deposit. That fact in itself made me sad to know that no one has taken responsibility in preserving the collection besides keeping the books in some fancy glass cabinets.

At the centre of the library was a large golden globe of the Earth, constructed at a time before Galileo, when it was still thought that the world was at the centre of the universe.

All of this was very thirsty work. Returning to Madrid in the afternoon for some tapas and a glass of wine was well received. This free offer of a snack was provided at the city's popular shopping centre, Corte Ingles. I would liken this department store to Australia's Myer - many levels, many shopping options, all in one location.

I found it quite hilarious to see the types of items on sale there. In some ways, the fashions and styles of household accessories looked quite dated. Things I recall seeing in a store like Myer when I was in my teens, are, here in Madrid, the latest fashion to hit the stores.

The tapas and wine I was given in the store's cafeteria were awful. But, there was something on the menu that immediately caught my attention. Dulce de leche crepes with helado. For those of you who don't know, dulce de leche is a caramelised condensed milk that the Spanish make and have on their deseert menus often. It definitely appeals to a sweet tooth like me! I was in heaven! And with helado! Helado = ice cream... you can figure out for yourself why I was so pleased.

Memories of my last trip to Spain and France in 2005 came flooding back. I had reached the stage where I was following the dulce de leche desserts and ice-creams all across the country. I always asked for it and was rarely disappointed to find it available on the menu. I am sure this will be a repeat performance of sorts.

So, tomorrow is another day of sight-seeing and discovery. There is an Egyptian temple to the west of the city that was a gift from the Egyptian government, reconstructed in Madrid piece by piece and completed in 1973. I hear from the locals that it is a good place to visit. Perhaps that will be on the cards tomorrow, who knows? Time will tell...

Hasta luego amigos!


another wonderful day in madrid...

What a day!
The Reina Sofia in the morning. Seeing Picasso's Guernica up close - a special event. Such marvellous contemporary art held there...

Since I had a troublesome and sleepless night, I only possessed the energy to see one museo today. Despite this, I still managed to experience another fascinating day observing the Spaniards and the way they go about their daily business.

I spent last night reading the Madrid guide which was given to me with my Madrid Cultura card. In it, I spotted a restaurant not far from the Plaza Mayor that is one of the oldest in the city. Botín was apparently a regular haunt of Earnest Hemingway's. As such, I knew I had to see it.

Situated on the Calle Cuchilleros (The Street of the People with Knives), it's a mutli-level historical establishment. At the time I was inspecting the outside, the owner happened to be walking past and asked me if I needed help. I explained that I had heard of the resturant's reputation, and wanted to know more about the place that Hemingway frequented.

To my surprise, the owner was happy to show me through the place, even though it was still closed. He explained to me that he and his two brothers owned the restaurant, and that their family had owned it for generations since it opened in 1725.

Wow! It had existed before the official discovery of Australia in 1788! Again, this fact blew my mind.

I was told that Hemingway enjoyed having the suckling pig, which still featured on the menu. Of course, this wasn't a selling point for me, as I have never been able to stomach pig of any kind since my father died. But, to dine in the same place as Hemingway? I was keen, regardless.

The restaurant was cosy. It reminded me of an old English B&B, with old, worn wooden floors, brick and stone walls, and exposed timber beams lining the ceiling. I was more than happy to make a dinner reservation for 8pm this evening.

I am still getting used to the eating times in Spain. To give you an idea of a typical day here at the beginning of Spring... I set my alarm clock for 7am, and the sun still hasn't risen. I go to the floyer of the hotel in the morning for my buffet breakfast at about 8am.... where I can have cereal, croissants and breads of all kinds, fruit, yoghurt, and traditional Spanish tortilla, a potato omelette. The Spanish like to eat this omelette with jamon cerrano, smoked ham, and other meats. I cannot eat so much meat first thing in the morning, so I politely stick to my coffee and cereal, venturing towards a small sample of the tortilla if I can accommodate it.

Even though I have not personally witnessed it, the Spaniards like to have a siesta in the afternoon. As a result, the shops are open until late every evening, and the city's agog with people around 8-9pm, when dinner is starting.

It's quite interesting. When I am starting to wind down for the day, Madrid comes alive and people are everywhere, just starting their evening's activities: having dinner, tapas, coffees. The routine heavily relies on socialising and coming together for a meal, unlike anything I have witnessed in Australia. People of ALL ages are out and about, and they happily mix at various establishments. It's not as segregated as in Australia, where the young go to certain places at night, and the older citizens frequent other places, and mainly during the day and early evening.

So, I was surprised this evening to find thst I had to have an afternoon nap in order to even be able to contemplate having dinner at 8pm. Dinner was always done and dusted by the time 7pm rolled around.

I went to Botín at 8pm, as I had booked this morning. (8pm is when they open for dinner - I was one of their first customers.) I was escorted to my table on the 2nd floor and was given a menu in English. So many yummy things to choose from - I decided on a veal escalope and a small jug of sangria.

Those of you who know me, know that I am a huge sangria fan, and am always seeking a fine example of it in the restaurants of Melbourne. Truth be told, I thought I had found it in Acland Street, St Kilda. Tonight, I was proven wrong.

I had the most fantastic, indescribably delicious sangria to accompany my dinner! I was so impressed with it, I asked the waiter for the recipe - I wanted a repeat performance when I returned home. He provided me with it, happily.

My escalope was divine... such a wonderful feast for the taste-buds, followed by rice pudding, the kind of which I haven't had the pleasure of having since I was a child. (My grandmother used to make the best rice pudding - or so I thought until this evening.)

After dinner concluded at 10pm, I decided to walk back to my hotel, as there were still many shops open, and people everywhere. It was a great excuse to people-watch. I enjoy observing how the Spaniards interact with one another, their body language, the pleasure they obviously take in being out and in being alive. There is an indescribable, intangible passion for living life to the fullest in these people.

It'd be great if the Australians could take a leaf out of their book. Our lifestyle seems so rigid and routine in comparison. I'm sure it has to do with our history as well. Today, as I mentioned, I also visited the Reina Sofia... and in it, I saw a photographic axhibition of Spain and its people taken during the times of Franco. I saw the first Lumiere films documenting the amiable meetings between Franco and Hitler, contrasted with films showing little Spanish children being branded as they were being concentrated by the government of the time. It was quite a shock to see such confronting visuals, the like of which I have not witnessed before.

I saw posters of protest to Franco's dictatorship, government propaganda, encouraging the masses to behave in certain ways and to support the ethos of the regime. I also saw photos of the aftermath of such a regime - it was amazing to see the Gran Via, the street on which my hotel is located, in ruins, with rubble all around, and people digging through the devastation to find loved ones, or any traces of the lives they had lost.

When I saw the Spanish people socialising later that night in the Plaza, I started to wonder if it was this history that made them the way they are - savouring special moments with friends and loved ones, living their regular lives to the maximum.

Food for thought... I will keep watching and observing.

Hasta luego amigos!


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

estoy cansada...

To say that the last few days have been interesting would be an understatement.

I left Melbourne late Friday night (3am on Saturday morning if you want to get technical about it) and reached Kuala Lumpur for a brief stopover eight hours later. All was good, no complaints... except, maybe a little stiffness from being in Economy class, which leaves a lot of leg room to be desired.Then, I boarded another Emirates plane to Dubai, where I was to stay for a complimentary night in a hotel near the airport. All was still good. I had a lovely complimentary dinner, got to stay in a more than adequate, comfortable, 3-star hotel, and was provided with a wake-up call at 5am in order to make sure that the airport shuttle-bus would take me to the airport in time to meet my next Emirates plane to Madrid at 7.30am.

As I said, all was good.

Only one little thing managed to throw me completely out of whack...

As I was boarding my airport-bound shuttle bus, the hotel porter took my suitcase to store in the rear of the bus for the trip. I got to the airport on time, no problem. However, it was only when I got there that I discovered that my suitcase was not stored at the back of the bus as I was assured it would be. The porter did no such thing. Apparently, he put the suitcase on the trolley in the hotel foyer for safe-keeping.

Mayhem ensued... Liaising with the hotel's representative at the airport, panicked calls were made to the hotel to ask the whereabouts of my precious cargo. Fifteen minutes later, it was found in the foyer, and rushed over to me at the airport, where I was waiting as patiently as possible.

Now, all would have been fine, but for those of you who have never been to Dubai before, let me tell you... Dubai's International Airport has to be the biggest mother of an airport existing on this planet! I don't even think that the Vatican City would be this big. Sure, I would have got my suitcase on time if I was running from one side of Melbourne airport to the other. But, being disabled, and taking into account that I also managed to get screwed over at Passport Control and the security checks I had to go through, what ensued, stressed me out completely. And I don't get stressed easily.

Firstly, it must be said that going to Dubai was the least of my concerns. I look Arabic (as some people have told me), I can even speak a little Arabic (albeit in a rusty fashion), I even have an Arabic name. No problem, right?


I got looks of suspicion from the "security" guys at each check point. At least, I assumed they were security staff... it was hard to tell when each of them looked the same, dressed in bedouin-style white gallabeyahs (robes), complete with Arab head-garb as seen on the heads of Saudi-Arabian royalty on TV. It truly was hard to discern one guy from the other. Now that I am writing this, and reflecting on my airport experience, I think they thought I was a terrorist, because my name is Arabic and I come from a Western country like Australia. What's with that? I have to be up to no good, surely. They probably thought I was a good Al-Qaida candidate.

So, in a nutshell, the security checks took longer than they should have. I'm sure I would have had to endure a full body-search if I so much as twitched or stopped smiling and trying to communicate with these people in their native language. So, that, combined with the fact that my suitcase was late and that I had to get to my departure gate at the other end of the 10km-long airport, made me miss my final call for departure.

I got to the departure gate for Madrid five minutes late, in extreme pain from over-exerting my damaged leg. Stressed out of my mind, pushing myself to my utter disabled limits, another of these UAE Arabs greeted me and my boarding pass with a snide grin and politely informed me that I wasn't allowed to board this late.

I stopped in disbelief, panting and sweating profusely as my mind raced on to what I could do next. I tried explaining to this vile human being that a mistake was made with my suitcase, and that I had a disability, which slowed me down even further... in a vain attempt to persuade him to call through to the plane to allow me on board. No luck...

So, I resorted to asking him what I should do next. To add insult to injury, the mocking retort I received was: "Arrange for a new flight, of course." If there was an Arabic word for "D'UH", I'm sure this imbecile would have used it.

Without thanking him for his help, I turned and made my way to an Information Desk to ask where I could arrange to be booked onto a new flight to Madrid. The verdict? In 24 hours... I had to wait a whole day before I would endure this airport again.

I angrily made my way back to the hotel's help-desk, to complain about the error that was made in the hopes of obtaining a second free night in their facilities. After much argument about the error and whose fault it was, I was finally rewarded with another night at their 4-star counterpart around the corner at a discount rate of 10% off the normal price of a room. Just let me add an addendum to that arrangement... their "4-star" service provided me with a NON-disabled friendly room for SMOKERS, with a crappy dinner that I had to pay for in full.

Of course, when the receptionist at the 4-star facility happily informed me that she would give me a wake-up call at 5am to catch my flight to Madrid, I laughed in her face. No... not acceptable. Wake-up call will be at 3am.

"But, Madame, our first shuttle bus to the airport is at 5am"
"Well, Madame, you'll have to make special arrangements for my transport at 3.30am. I would like to be at my departure gate at LEAST at hour before my departure time. I am disabled, and that airport is way to big for the likes of me."

Problem solved, I got to my gate the next morning, with time to spare, as I instructed.

And I got to Madrid on time, jumping through far less security checks at Barrajas Airport. I also managed to score a wonderful conversationalist in the taxi driver that took me to my hotel in central Madrid. My room is comfortable, I get a buffet breakfast every morning, and I have internet access to catch up on my blogging, Facebook posts and email. Life is good again.

Today, I used my Madrid Cultura card, and went to the Museo Prado and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. I have Goya, Velasquez, Picasso and Dali on the brain. Not to mention the international offerings... Kandinski, Rothko, Monet, Cezanne, Pollock, Renoir, popping up here and there to be admired in the mix. Looking at works of art for periods of time in a gallery feeds my soul. If the artwork appeals to me, or is abstract, I can spend a good amount of time pondering its meaning, what I feel by viewing it, or what I think it means to me. A thoroughly enjoyable experience.

I also managed to have a wonderfully delicious, thick hot-chocolate in the Plaza Mayor under the cool morning sunlight, as I watched a couple of fascinating street-performers who were trying to keep up with the calibre of the street performers in Barcelona's Ramblas.

I've even spotted a few new and strange Spanish motorcycle brands parked on the streets, as I made my way (slowly) from one point to another in the cuidad.

All in all, Madrid has been pleasant - much nicer than my last time here, so far. I have had the time, despite my delay in getting here, to observe the capital's citizens more closely and with inevitable fascination. They speak so fast, I have trouble keeping up with my poor understanding. Likewise, their need for speed is evident in other parts of Spanish life. They are currently protesting the lowering of the driving speed rates on the freeways from 130-140kms per hour to a measly 110km per hour. *insert jaw drop from Australians here* It really blew my mind when I saw a little old lady in her 60s complaining on the Spanish news about the speed being reduced and that it was better at 140km per hour.

I wanted to call the police back home and broadcast the speed rates in Spain - I've been targeted over the last four years for a mere 5-10kms over the 60/80/100/110km limits in Melbourne and its surrounds, Yep, makes sense to me... *sigh*

Well, I guess I'll leave it there for now. Tomorrow will also be a big day full of activities in Madrid's CBD. There's so much to see and do here, I'm wondering if I'll be able to fit it all in. Time will tell... as will my blog contributions. Stay tuned, friends...