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Madrid, the bear and the tree

May 16th, 2010
The tree is a strawberry tree (whereas I thought strawberries grew on bushes). That may explain the size...

The tree is a strawberry tree (whereas I thought strawberries grew on bushes). That may explain the size...

Apparently, the symbol of Madrid is a bear and a tree.

Based on a cursory glance, nothing is out of the ordinary. There’s a bear, and it’s climbing a tree. Here’s the thing though: the bear is bigger than the tree. The tree is scarcely taller than the bear, and on further review more closely resembles broccoli than a tree. The bear, on the other hand, appears to be confused: “That’s it?” he wonders, “I really thought there would be more to it.”

We started the day on the later side, and our first priority was getting to El Rastro — a Sunday-only open air market referred to as a “must see” in all of our guide books — before it closed at 3 PM. We got directions and made our way south and west towards the market, but once we arrived, we were sure that we were in the wrong place. Where the guide books said “open air market”, we found a flea market. Since we were not in the market for a socket set or some 30-year-old Spanish porn (“I think that’s used porn” Karen astutely observed), we beat a hasty retreat back toward the Plaza Mayor, and grabbed lunch in one of the plazas along the way.

Karen had been complaining about the lack of fruits and vegetables in Spain, so she ordered a salad — the only salad on the menu — and we sat back with beers and watched the people. When our food arrived, we realized that our definition of salad was far too narrow. We had assumed that a salad would include vegetables, lettuce, tomatoes, etc., but if I wanted to order the salad we received in the States, I would say: “Can you bring us a giant plate of potato salad, with some ham and peas in it, and then throw some saffron and olives on top? Extra mayo.” Needless to say, Karen went to town on the olives (leaving much of the mayo-potato disaster), and I munched contently on my fried calamari, which is one of two national dishes (the other being fried potato nuggets in “spicy” brava sauce, which is actually super mild; this country has no tolerance for spicy foods).

We went back to the Plaza Mayor, which was lovely and warm in the sunshine. It reminded me of a college quadrangle, but with shops, cobblestones, and a plethora of street performers. Even in a country with so many options for small plates, every other group of people was chowing down on McDonald’s. Apparently, Burger King, Starbucks, and KFC are all getting serious market share here. (On a related note, we have also enjoyed the over-literal translations of American movies: we almost went to see “Noche Loca” – real title: Date Night, literally “Crazy Night”.

In the evening we met up with Jared and his girlfriend Adrianna, Jared being a friend of Karen’s cousin (they are the ones with us below the bear and the tree). They took us to a classy tapas joint, specializing in pinchas (small portions on toast), which was delicious. We enjoyed speaking English, and even met a very nice guy from Atlanta at a neighboring table who had been running an American car importing company in Spain for 10 years. Afterward, we had a few rounds of caipirinhas at a different place, and we learned that Lance Armstrong doesn’t like to be far from his bikes (whether or not he is able to ride them), and that the president of Venezuela is a jerk.

After we said goodbye to Jared and Adrianna, we had another drink at a bar that was playing good music, and we were reminded exactly how lovely it is to not have to worry about getting stabbed with a lit cigarette at a bar in New York (answer: very lovely). We also learned that, regardless of any language barriers, the Black Eyed Peas are universal. Fergie is right: tonight was a good night.

On our way back to the hotel, we ran into at least two groups of Americans. One group was outside the only Irish pub in the city, while the other was taking pictures next to the bear and the tree. The latter group were three young guys from San Diego who apparently played professional soccer in the South of Spain in a minor league. Other than Americans and locals imploring us to go into their bars, the streets were empty. All the locals had gone to bed. Yesterday, Madrid was the bear; today, it was the tree.

Madrid, on 3 hours of sleep

May 15th, 2010

First off, let me just say that serving breakfast at midnight does not fool your body into thinking that 3 hours of nodding off in a seated position is a good night’s sleep. That being said, we did just experience the miracle of human flight (thanks for reminding us Mr. C.K.). I have absolutely no complaints about being whisked from New York to Madrid in less time than it takes to make ceviche. But my body wasn’t fooled; it knew I shortchanged it.

The airport in Madrid was empty at 7:30 am, which surprised me considering today is San Isidro, the festival of the patron saint of Madrid. In fact, the whole city was empty even when we arrived at our hotel at 9:00 am. There is something charming about an entire city sleeping in.

Despite our sleep-deprived zombie gait, we managed to walk the mile or so to El Museo del Prado. We really had no choice, since we were beholden to the blood oath that we signed getting off the plane to visit the greatest collection of Spanish masterworks in the world. In truth, I enjoyed seeing the more famous works (Las Meninas, etc.), but the royalty and the religion really wore on me after the 200th depiction of Jesus on the cross.

The streets ran blue with smurf blood

The streets ran blue with smurf blood

On the way back to the hotel — Hotel Preciados, which I highly recommend, for what it’s worth — we admired the preparations for the 100th anniversary of the Gran Via, one of the main avenues in Madrid. And what celebration would be complete without a giant blue carpet?

We thought that there would be a parade of some sort, but we knew it wouldn’t start for some time (the streets were still pretty empty, even at noon), so we tried a siesta on for size. It should surprise nobody that siesta fits us like a glove.

By the time we dragged ourselves out of the room, the city had also managed to rouse itself, and we could see that there was in fact a parade on the big blue carpet, however the parade consisted of every resident of Madrid walking up and down the street, drinking and making merry. There actually wasn’t that much drinking, considering the permissiveness of the police and the scores of short, weathered-looking folks selling dollar (I mean 1 Euro) cans out of backpacks. We bought two and set on the carpet to watch the people, the sunset, and the left side of a large concert stage. Behind us, a father had his 5-year old son hold his beer while he put on his sunglasses. The police nodded approvingly.

The rest of the evening was tapas, vino, and walking around the teeming city center. We spent a particularly long time trying to determine how we managed to go south from our hotel, make two rights, and end up very far east of our hotel (without ever crossing the street we went south on). Our best guess: San Isidro is also the patron saint of wormholes.

Here’s the thing about cooking

November 15th, 2009

It really doesn’t matter what you intended to create, or how wrong you went. You can usually salvage something. I recently had to rescue a shrimp dish (not designed by me) that came out a little off. That is, the dish’s designer said about the initial product: “We can’t feed this to people.”

Now, I don’t know if he was implying that the dish was suitable for dogs (it wasn’t – they can’t peel shrimp on account of not having thumbs), or if he meant that we should throw it away. What I said was: “We can rebuild it; we have the technology.”

The technology was 15 minutes of peeling shrimp, plus sweet chili sauce. The result was a room full of pleased people, who will never know the truth (unless they read my blog, that is).

Now, salvaging mediocre blog posts is another story…