Saturday, August 28, 2004


Radio personality, ninjitsu grandmaster and avowed pastrami fanatic Drew Crosby passed through Cabanillas del Campo today to sign autographs, kiss babies and take full advantage of the four-inch high stack of unused lunch vouchers accumulating in my desk drawer.

Drew is an on-air personality for Vaughan Radio (101.0 FM); a growing Madrid radio station that broadcasts English-language programs – twenty-four hours per day – aimed at Spaniards trying to learn English.

Given the station’s target audience, one might reasonably ask why it chose a name as difficult to spell and pronounce as “Vaughan.” Perhaps it was more popular with focus groups than were the station’s other proposals, “Floccinaucinihilipilification Radio” and “Vanha-mies-jolla-on-puujalka Radio.” But, I digress!

Drew hosts the popular show “Highways and Bi-ways,” which airs from 1730 to 1830 on Mondays through Wednesdays, and from 1630 to 1730 on Fridays and Sundays. The show’s theme is to “share impressions and discoveries from off the beaten path [in] English.” He also co-hosts the show “Tea for Two,” which airs from 1700 to 1730 on Mondays and Wednesdays.

You can listen to both of Drew's shows on-line. Check them out!

I can personally vouch for Drew’s skills as a communicator, and his mastery of the English language. The fact alone that he’s regularly able to sustain a conversation with me – the most introverted creature outside the Rhesus monkey population – should win him his own time slot on BBC World Service. And in the nearly ten years that I’ve known him, I’ve never heard him BURP. Not once!

Yet despite his impressive broadcasting credentials, Drew differs from his industry colleagues in an important way: He doesn’t do weddings or bar mitzvahs.

I suspect, however, that this point may be negotiable if pastrami is served.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004


The Osborne sherry and brandy company has one of the most recognizable – and in my opinion, best – logos in Spain: the Osborne bull.

For years Osborne’s marketing gurus posted huge, black, bull-shaped billboards throughout Spain. When the government passed a law in the ‘80’s prohibiting billboards on motorways, they made an exception for the Osborne bull. It is, after all, as much a part of Spanish culture as are double-parking and tax evasion.

Pictured above is our local Osborne bull, proudly standing guard over the city of Guadalajara. Osborne bulls are usually perched tastefully amongst groves of sunflowers or olive trees rather than power lines, but we’re glad to have him nonetheless. Better to have this Osborne as a neighbor than Ozzy or any of his offspring.


Believe it or not, there are some editors in the world who’ve been foolish enough to publish my writings in reputable publications. Listed below are links to a couple of these.

Taxicab Confessions: Published in the October 4, 2001 issue of Newcity Chicago. I co-wrote it with my good friend and fellow chowhound, Jai Harpalani. It discusses the grungy, little Indo-Paki diners in Chicago where cab drivers eat…and eat well!

Everything You Always Wanted and Need to Know about the Legal Environment of Spain: Published in the July 2000 issue of Defense Counsel Journal. My former boss and I wrote this when I worked as an attorney for a large Barcelona law firm. It’s long and not terribly entertaining…which probably explains why it won the George W. Yancey Memorial Award for best article of the year 2000. And by the way, the article’s title was NOT my idea.

Hey…man does not live on blogs alone.

Sunday, August 22, 2004


I’ve never understood the appeal of country music. It’s an odd genre that, to my ear, sounds like a kitschy form of blues music performed by people wholly lacking a bluesman’s talent and soulfulness. Yet there are many who not only love country music, but view it as part and parcel of the American identity; indeed as American as Al Capone, corn dogs, and meter-wide buttocks.

These aficionados would be quick point out that neither my background nor upbringing is compatible with an understanding – let alone an appreciation – of country music. And they may have a point. It’s certainly true that I’ve never owned a hound dog or pick-up truck. The closest thing to grits in my mother’s pantry while growing up was apple and cinnamon flavored Instant Cream of Wheat. I’ve never ridden a mechanical bull, eaten ‘possum, used the phrase “thank you kindly ma’am” in a sentence, or shot a man after drinking too much whiskey in a honky tonk.

Yet while I might concede that Loretta Lynn and I share little in the way of a common upbringing, I do not agree that I am somehow “hard-wired” to dislike country music. I am, after all, slightly bow-legged. I’ve had a deep appreciation for Dolly Parton’s rack since the age of 14. And I do like the song that’s played at the end of each episode of “The Benny Hill Show;” which, I’m told, was recorded by a famous Nashville saxophonist named “Socks” or “Boots” or something foot-related.

Regardless of the reasons, I haven’t exactly lamented the dearth of country music in my life since moving to Spain nearly five years ago. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of it until one night last month when I was listening to Radio Nacional de España (Spanish National Radio).

RNE has a number of radio channels catering to different listener tastes. Its “Radio 3” channel broadcasts an eclectic musical mix – ranging from hip-hop to Chicago blues to late 60’s psychedelic rock – that is targeted toward the “under 45” age group. It’s a fantastic channel that I listen to almost exclusively during and after working hours. Despites its many merits, however, Radio 3’s eclectic format has a dark side.

Radio 3 plays an hour of country music at 7am and 7pm every Saturday and Sunday. I discovered this program quite by accident while laying ceramic tiles around my house last month. My first reaction to hearing a twangy steel guitar was, predictably, to lunge for the radio’s tuning knob. But I resisted the urge – partially because it had been years since I last heard a country song; partially because my hands were covered with cement – and decided to simply tough it out during the next 60 minutes.

I’m glad that I did. As I continued laying tiles and listening to the preposterous lyrics of these songs, it dawned on me that country music – if approached with the proper frame of mind – can be remarkably entertaining; albeit in the same cheesy way that a dashboard-mounted hula doll or Christmas light-studded reproduction of DaVinci’s Last Supper can be entertaining.

But talk is cheap, and I wanted to provide you – the reader – with concrete proof to support this bold statement. I therefore stiffened my jaw and tuned in to today’s broadcast of the Radio 3 country music hour. Listed below are the plot lines of all the songs played:
First Song: A man gets back together with his woman. Miraculously, his “tears stop fallin’.”

Second Song: A man declares that if he can win back his woman’s love, he’d be very happy. He’d make her very happy, too. He then goes on to grovel for her love for another two minutes and twenty-five seconds until the song ends.

Third Song: A woman recounts a lengthy list of things she would do if she could just see her man’s face one more time.

Fourth Song: A gunfighter named “Pancho” gets shot to death in the Mexican desert. His killer is a washed-up singer from Ohio named “Lefty.”

Fifth Song: A man has “sweet dreams” about his woman every night. He can’t forget her; he can’t hate her. The problem is, however, that she clearly doesn’t love him. The man knows this, and even admits that she’ll never “wear [his] name.” Yet those sweet dreams about her keep coming.

Sixth Song: Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors.” OK, OK…everyone knows this song. And I must admit that – rack or no rack – it’s a great song. I’ll therefore dispense with the sarcasm and move on to the next.

Seventh Song: Unfortunately, not quite in the same league as “Coat of Many Colors.” A woman bemoans her man’s leaving. You see, loving him “was a one-way street.” She therefore vows to go out and find more men on Saturday nights, but not put her heart into any of them. In her own words, “It’s gonna be easy from now on.” Perhaps she should be singing, “I’m gonna be easy from now on.”

Eighth Song: A woman reminisces about the good times she had with her brother and sister in bygone days. They used to “dance the night away” and “walk by the river,” and her brother “knows where all the best bars are.” By the way, I should point out that not a single stanza of this song rhymed with another.

Ninth Song: A man and his woman “Maggie” moved west. Two months later, Maggie left him. But the man doesn’t care, because “it’s midnight and [he’s] got two more bottles of wine.”

Tenth Song: A man informs that “even cowgirls get the blues”…and “sometimes they don’t know what to do”…and “sometimes they get this feeling like she’s [sic] too far gone”…and they spend many nights on the road “staring at motel ceilings.” I’m not sure what to make of that last statement.

Final Song: I listened to this song twice and, quite frankly, found it incomprehensible. There was some talk during the chorus of “rolling on” to something or somewhere, but that’s all I could extract from it. I then rewound the cassette and listened to “Coat of Many Colors” again, so as not to leave with a bitter taste in my mouth.
Do you see what I mean? Each song (except for the last one) is like a miniature soap opera. Granted, I’m referring to one of those melodramatic South American soap operas, but I intend this as a complement nonetheless.

If you were to sit and concentrate – really concentrate – on the message and texture of country music lyrics, you’d probably find yourself roaring with laughter and feeling better about the general state of your own life. Yes, country music lyrics can be therapeutic.

It’s just a damn shame that they don’t put those lyrics to better music.


In the interest of promoting brotherhood amongst the blogger community, I will from time to time highlight some of the blogs that I like to read when I’m not writing my own. Here is my first installment:
The Puerta del Sol Blog
A well-written, attractive blog featuring reflections of life in Spain and Spanish culture.

My Life as a Walt
The best thing about this blog is the author’s portfolio of creative work. I especially like the work posted under the “My Comic Creations” archive. Mel Cool: Mall Cop® is rather cool indeed.

Living in Egypt
Reflections on the daily life of a Canadian woman who’s been living in Egypt since the 1980’s. Not many belly-laughs, but all posts are very well written.
Stay tuned for more "Blogs I Like" as I unearth them.

Thursday, August 19, 2004


I must confess…I’ve been a low-down, two-timing scoundrel these past weeks. But don’t worry. It won’t affect my marriage; just my coffee breaks.

My love and fidelity toward Bar Alcázar and its fabulous cafés con leche have been tested and found wanting. You see, Bar Alcázar closed for two weeks’ summer holiday this month and I was forced to seek another spot for my morning coffee. Bar Gema seemed the logical candidate to fill the gap.

Bar Gema is the new kid on the Cabanillas del Campo bar block. Unlike Bar Alcázar, it is sparkling new, surically clean, and run by a bartender who might be the only person on earth more shy than I am. I initially scoffed at this audacious attempt to penetrate the Cabanillas del Campo market that Bar Alcázar has satisfied so ably for so many years. But my principles have limits; and two weeks without an out-of-the-house coffee break is a limit that I wasn’t interesting in pushing. So I went to Bar Gema.

And I’ll be damned if its café con leche isn’t better than Bar Alcázar’s!

I wasn’t prepared for this. In fact, it left me with a bit of a dilemma. I couldn’t just turn my back on Bar Alcázar. I’ve been going there every morning for the past year, and this is a very small town. To make matters worse, the brother of Bar Alcázar owners José and Antonio lives directly across the street from Bar Gema. On the other hand, I wouldn’t dream of turning my back on a café con leche as magnificent as Bar Gema’s. That would be too big a sacrifice in the absence of concrete proof of an afterlife.

In the end, therefore, I decided to follow the example of Brigham Young and spread my affection equally amongst both mistresses. I will, for the foreseeable future, visit Bar Alcázar one morning; Bar Gema the next. This seems a solution that’s both workable and equitable.

I just pray to God that nobody opens another bar.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004


My father-in-law attributes much of the blame for his recent heart bypass surgery to 72 years of eating churros. I’d be willing to bet, however, that he views this as an equitable trade-off.

I can see his point.

Churros – those heavenly little pastries that, if eaten without restraint, can send you to heaven much earlier than expected – are nothing more than fried dough sticks. Flour, eggs, salt, baking powder and water are mixed into a dough and piped through a star-shaped nozzle to form ridged, little logs. The dough logs are deep-fried in olive oil until golden brown, drained and lightly sprinkled with sugar. Unlike their Mexican counterpart, churros in Spain are never dusted with cinnamon or filled with cream.

Fresh, well-made churros have a crispy crust and tender core. They should be neither oily nor rubbery nor pasty, and are best eaten as soon as possible after frying.

They are addictive little bastards that, when paired with a café con leche or cup of hot chocolate, form the basis of many a Spaniard’s morning meal. Certainly healthier than a breakfast cigarette, but a far cry from oat bran or Actimel®.

Churros are easy to find throughout Spain, although they go by different names in different regions. Catalans call them “xurros.” Sevillanos call them “calentijos” or “tejeringos.” No matter. They all look the same.

Many bars will display a tray of churros during morning hours…but be careful. If you are ever to eat a churro with the texture of a garden hose and the mouthfeel of oil-soaked cardboard, it’s likely to be in a bar.

But don’t let me discourage you. There are plenty of bars in Spain that serve-up a damn crispy churro. You just need to find them. Look for bars that have a high churro turnover, which assures that fresh trays are brought out at regular intervals. A chubby clientele is usually a good indicator of this. When a new tray is laid on the bar, order quickly. You will want those prized churros sitting on top of the pile, rather than the ones underneath acting as de facto oil sponges. Or better yet, look for a bar that makes its own churros in the back kitchen. There aren’t a lot of these, but they do exist.

The best place to buy churros, however, is in a churrería. Churrerías are little storefronts in which a mom or pop – often with faces that are amazingly well-preserved thanks to years of hovering over a steamy vat of olive oil – dedicate their lives to the art of perfectly frying churros, potato chips and other crunchy goodies that have never crossed the lips of Ally McBeal. Patronizing a churrería is the surest way to get the most crispy, fresh and tender churros possible. And it’s the only way to get a hot churro that’s never seen the inside of a microwave oven. But alas, there is a downside to churrerías: no coffee. Coffee is important, as I will now explain.

Churros are best eaten with a café con leche or cup of hot chocolate. Before continuing, however, I should clarify one thing. When I say “hot chocolate,” I am not talking about the insipid, Swiss Miss-type chocolate that is popular in the US. Rather, the hot chocolate served in Spain resembles a thick, dark, gooey mass of molten chocolate pudding. It’s an intense, face-puckering drink that you might be tempted to chew before swallowing. And man, is it good!

But back to the point. You must dip the churro into your coffee or chocolate, utter the word “Zubizareta” (not because it has any special relevance, but because the time it takes to say it is more or less the optimal soaking time), pull it out and bite it. The contrasting flavors of salty dough, sweet sugar and bitter coffee or chocolate mesh together amazingly well. And if the churro is fresh, it will still crunch despite the soaking you’ve just given it. So forget what you learned in business school. THIS is what synergy is all about.

And by the way…if you – like me – are one of those persnickety people who is mortified by the sight of crumbs floating in his drink, stop worrying. Churros don’t leave any crumbs behind in the coffee. An oil slick, yes; but crumbs, no.

It’s now time to put all this theory into practice. At the risk of panicking the cardiologists of Spain (or, alternatively, in the interest of enriching them), here are a few of my father-in-law’s favorite churro joints in Madrid.

- Churrería San Ginés: Located on Pasaje San Ginés, where it crosses Calle Arenal. Extremely popular spot for New Year’s Eve revelers seeking hot chocolate and churros before going home to sleep it off.

- Chocolatería Valor: Located on Calle de Conde de Peñalver. Specializes in hot chocolate, but serves great churros as well.

- Fábrica de Churros y Patatas Fritas: Located on Avenida de Felipe II (Plaza de Dalí), near the Goya El Corte Inglés.

So there you have it. Everything you need to know about churros. If – despite my praise – you still feel apprehensive about eating this fat-filled, high-carb little devil, then perhaps I can offer a brainstorm. Why not drink a glass of red wine for every churro eaten each day?

I’ll bet the French do it; assuming they have churros in France. I’ll bet Julia Child would do it; if only she were alive today. It’s a pity that my father-in-law didn’t do it.

Hmmm…on second thought, I’ll bet he did.

Monday, August 16, 2004


My favorite summertime Spanish drink is not sangría. To be honest, I don’t find sangría appealing during any season. Nope, my favorite summertime drink is horchata. Horchata tastes great, refreshes and unlike sangría, doesn’t leave me with a crippling hangover the next day.

Horchata is a thin, sweet, milky-white drink from the Valencia region of Spain’s southeast Mediterranean coast. Contrary to what many believe, it is not dairy-based. Nor is it made from rice, as is its Mexican counterpart.

Spanish horchata is, instead, made from chufa – a.k.a., “tiger nuts.” But chufas are not nuts at all; whether from a tiger or otherwise. They are round, brown tubers found in the roots of an Egyptian plant that grows especially well in the Valencian soil. I could tell you the Latin name for this plant, but why bother? This blog has no following amongst botanists, nor is it on the Vatican’s recommended reading list.

To make horchata, chufas are picked, washed, soaked and re-washed. They are then ground into a paste and infused with water. The chufa paste steeps in the water for several hours, then is pressed and strained. Finally, the resulting liquid is sweetened with sugar. Served ice cold, horchata is wildly popular with both children and adults.

Surprisingly, I am not aware of any cocktails in which horchata is a component; although I suspect that it would taste pretty good with a shot of dark rum and a paper umbrella.

A well-made horchata should be smooth and clean tasting, with a proper balance between its sweetness and nuttiness. If a sip of horchata leaves your tongue feeling as if it were coated with chalk dust, you’re not drinking a good one. If it’s so sweet that the fillings in your teeth begin to throb, look elsewhere for the next round. If it tastes like liquid rice pudding, then double-check your airline tickets because you’ve probably landed in Mexico.

You need not worry about these flaws, however, because I am going to tell you where to find the best horchata in all of Spain. In Madrid on the southwest corner of Calles Narvaez and Jorge Juan – within shouting distance of the Goya El Corte Inglés – there is a white, metal shed in which a mother and son sell drinks from (roughly) May until September. Go there. Log off your computer and go there NOW, because the folk in that little shed serve the best horchata on this side of Pluto. They serve a stellar granizado de limón (lemon graniza), as well.

But they don’t serve sangría; which, perhaps, explains the absence of British tourists amongst their client base.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004


Coffee is a well-loved drink in Spain. Its popularity is, perhaps, second only to “anything with alcohol.” A Spaniard will drink a coffee for breakfast, at mid-morning break, after lunch and, quite often, after dinner.

Nearly every Spanish home has a chrome, art deco-style, stovetop coffee maker, but coffee is best – and most often – drank in a bar. And there is no creature on earth that makes better coffee than a crusty Spanish bartender.

Spanish bartenders make coffee on large, steam-driven espresso machines. They use high quality, medium-roasted beans rather than the astringent, jet-black espresso beans favored by Starbucks and the Italians. A thick, brown stream oozes into cups propped below the machine’s chrome spouts, while the bartender simultaneously froths a stainless steel pitcher of whole milk with the steamer arm. Served in a ceramic cup or small, thin glass (but NEVER in a waxed paper cup), Spanish coffee is velvety, rich and flavorful. The well-established paradox that coffee, like roast chicken, smells a whole lot better than it tastes simply doesn’t hold water here.

But the language of coffee can pose problems for foreign visitors to Spain. I often imagine the following dialogue taking place at various bars throughout the country:

Spanish Bartender: Buenos días [in gravelly, tobacco-ravaged voice]. What can I get you?

Non-Spanish Tourist: Buenos días. I’d like a tall, half-caf Latte with skim milk and a light dusting of nutmeg…to go, please. And don’t forget to put a lid on it.


Spanish Bartender: Buenos días. What can I get you?

I think you’ll agree that such a cross-cultural disconnect is not conducive to the spirit of international goodwill and brotherhood that so many people outside the White House are trying to nurture. It obstructs the bartender from earning his livelihood, and the jet-lagged visitor from his much-needed jolt of caffeine. I therefore – under strict orders from Kofi Annan – am pleased to provide the following roadmap for ordering coffee in a Spanish bar.

Café con leche: A mixture of coffee and steamed milk – usually in a 50/50 to 25/75 proportion – served in a “large” (albeit laughably small by US standards) cup or glass. Most Spaniards drink this for breakfast. The bartender may ask if you prefer the milk caliente (hot) or templada (warm).

Café cortado: Coffee that is “cut” with a dash of steamed milk and served in a small cup. This is usually ordered after lunch or dinner.

Café solo: A shot of coffee without milk; served in a tiny cup. This is usually ordered after lunch or dinner.

Café manchado: A cup of steamed milk “spotted” with a few drops of coffee.

Carajillo: Black coffee spiked with brandy or anís (i.e., a Sambuca-like liquor). Wildly popular with older men.

Café Americano: Coffee diluted with extra water, and served with or without steamed milk. How embarrassing it is to even mention this!

Descafeinado: Decaffeinated coffee. You can request that any of the above choices be made descafeinado. Be sure, however, specify descafeinado de máquina (decaf from the machine). Otherwise, you’ll risk being served a cup of steamed milk and an envelope of instant decaf coffee.

Now that I’ve provided the basic tools for ordering coffee in Spain, I’d like to close with a nugget of advice that I’ve verified countless times during the past five years: Look for a bar that has little natural light, littered floors, a dense cloud of cigarette smoke, and an older, disheveled-looking male bartender – never taller than 5’7’” – wearing a collared shirt. Preferably a white, short-sleeve collared shirt. A bar that satisfies these criteria will most assuredly serve you a stellar coffee…and serve it to you well.

If there is an artfully-lettered sign hanging above the bar area listing its various offerings and their prices, turn around and head to the next.

If the bar has a TV playing music videos, call the authorities.

If any of the bartenders appear to be younger than 50 or – God forbid – wearing hair gel, don’t walk…RUN!

Always remember…there is no correlation between good grooming or attractive surroundings and good coffee. If you don’t believe me, taste a Starbucks half-caf Latte with skim milk. Even a light dusting of nutmeg can’t save it.

Sunday, August 08, 2004


We spent the past weekend in and around Vitoria in the Basque Country. Little did we know – although we certainly would’ve, had we done the slightest bit of research beforehand – that Vitoria’s “Fiesta en Honor de la Virgen Blanca” (Festival of the White Virgin) was in full swing.

The Festival was a boisterous affair full of drinking, dancing and music. Many Vitoria residents dressed the part. Men and boys wore brown leather slippers, white stockings, black knickers, white shirts, black vests, a black and gray checkered kerchief around the neck and a txapela (i.e., a big floppy beret that might be mistaken for a squid-ink pizza). Some carried a bota, although I can’t say whether this was done for reasons of tradition or convenience. Women and girls wore black and gray peasant outfits consisting of long skirts and frilly blouses, and wrapped their heads – Aunt Jemima-style – in a black kerchief. Babies of each sex were likewise adorned…right down to the bota.

Strolling bands of musicians seemed to be at every turn. They were mostly run-of-the-mill brass bands with the odd bagpiper thrown in for good measure, but there was at least one notable exception.

The “Plastic System Band” – a group of high-energy, French-speaking, black musicians dressed as red devils – flew in from the island of Martinique and set Vitoria ablaze with its pulsing rhythms and thrusting pelvises. Crowds parted and heads turned as they marched through the streets pounding on drums made from red spray-painted plastic barrels. Then again, I suppose that a group of French-speaking black men dressed as red devils would turn heads in the Basque Country even if they were quietly enjoying a game of whist in the park.

At high noon, we wedged ourselves into the Plaza de España to watch an umbrella-wielding mannequin of the mythical Basque figure “Celedón” fly across the diameter on a wire strung overhead. I don’t know who Celedón is or why he flies with an umbrella, but I would not be surprised if some patriots should cite him as proof that Mary Poppins is of Basque descent. I might lend more credence to such a claim if, for example, a flowered hat carbon-dated to the year 1416 had been unearthed at an archeological dig near the cod fishing banks of Nova Scotia. But to my knowledge, there’s been no such find.

I was not able to take a digi photo of Celedón’s high-wire act, because my wife thrust a camcorder into my hand and vowed dire consequences if I failed to record the entire event on video. But don’t despair. You can, thanks to the magic of Google, see a photo of Celedón at others' websites.

Incidentally, we had lunch at a stellar (and inexpensive) little eatery called Xixilu (chee-CHEE-loo) located at Plaza Amárica, 2 in Vitoria (Tel: 945-23-00-68). The ventresca (tuna belly) with tomatoes, menestra de verduras (sauteed vegetables) and green asparagus with Cabrales cheese were outstanding. And the beer was VERY cold. All four of them.

Thursday, August 05, 2004


The Spanish driver's license (actual size). Posted by Hello

There are few things in life as difficult or intimidating as getting a Spanish driver’s license. It is a process akin to trying to solve Fermat’s last theorem while sitting on death row in a Texas prison. If you don’t believe me, just ask anyone who has been through it.

For purposes of comparison, let me describe the process by which I obtained my driver’s license in the US. I sauntered into the Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles facility two days after my sixteenth birthday. I took a short multiple choice exam in which a perfect score was guaranteed by simply choosing the most conservative answer to each question. I then proceeded to the behind-the-wheel exam, which entailed a ten minute drive through an empty “driving course” (i.e., a parking lot with lines painted to simulate a real street) and concluded with the ever-difficult maneuver of pulling up to a curb. A hearty handshake and quick photograph later, I walked out with a warm driver’s license tucked into my wallet; secure in the knowledge that the State government deemed me fit to propel a 3,000 pound hunk of mechanized metal wherever and whenever I pleased. The entire process took forty-five minutes and cost me $30.

With this benchmark in mind, let’s turn out attention to the finer points of obtaining a driver’s license in Spain; a process that I naively assumed could be completed within the four month grace period that Spanish authorities allowed me to continue driving on my US license.

First, you must join a driving school. This is required whether you are a first time driver or, like me, had been driving in another country for nearly twenty years. The reason is that you’ll need their car. Spanish authorities require that examinees take the behind-the-wheel portion of the driving exam in a car that has a second brake, accelerator and clutch on the passenger side. I don’t know about you, but there’s no vehicle fitting this description parked in my garage. Fortunately, for a fee of multiple hundreds of Euros, any driving school will be pleased to lend you its car…and will toss in a study guide and some lessons (both theoretical and practical) to boot.

Once you’ve enrolled in a driving school, you must then get a medical and eye exam. There’s a cottage industry in Spain for doctors – some of whom may have even received their medical degrees from non-Caribbean countries – who specialize in medical exams for prospective drivers. They advertise as much on their front doors. With regard to my own exam, the doctor certified me as fit because I was able to open the door to his office, and as having good eyesight because I was able to grasp the doorknob without first feeling around for it with my fingertips.

Now begins the really fun part. The written portion of the Spanish driving exam consists of forty multiple choice questions; at least thirty-six of which must be answered correctly in order to pass. The scope of its questions goes well beyond the standard rules of the road. Questions pertaining to automobile mechanics, first aid, and technical specifications for vehicles ranging from scooters to quads to automobiles to delivery trucks are not only fair game, but are fairly common. Little wonder that the study guide I received from the driving school was over two hundred pages long, and densely packed with facts, definitions, formulae and statistics; all of which had to be memorized…and memorized well!

And to make matters worse, each multiple choice question has at least two possible answers that you would swear – on your grandmother’s life – must be correct. Having taken both the State of Illinois Bar exam and the Spanish written driver’s exam, I can say with certainty that I walked out of the former feeling much more confident that I had passed. But don’t take my word for it. Here are some authentic exam questions taken from and translated into English for your infotainment:

You are driving an automobile on a road that has more than one lane for certain directions of traffic. What is the maximum speed that you are permitted to drive?

(a) 100 kilometers per hour, but only in the direction that has more than one lane.
(b) 90 kilometers per hour, in both directions.
(c) 100 kilometers per hour, in both directions.

You are driving on a road that has two directions of traffic and three lanes separated by discontinuous, longitudinal lines. When can you use the center lane?

(a) Only for making a left-hand turn.
(b) For passing, making a turn or making a U-turn.
(c) For passing or for making a left-hand turn.

Do you see what I mean? The term “hair-splitting” comes immediately to mind, doesn’t it? Imagine answering forty questions like these while seated at an uncomfortable, government-issued desk.

With this background in mind, perhaps you won’t laugh quite so heartily when I tell you that I – after four months (FOUR MONTHS!) of diligent study and memorization – nonetheless failed the damn thing on my first try. I did, however, squeak by with a passing score on the second try. Countless others have not been so fortunate.

Once the written is exam is passed, a prospective driver’s period of relaxation and self-satisfaction is short-lived. That’s because the final hurdle to be cleared is arguably the most unnerving.

The behind-the-wheel exam is, quite frankly, terrifying to most examinees. The friendly, familiar figure of your driving school instructor is seated reassuringly in the passenger seat. But lurking in the bowels of the backseat, with jaundiced eyes and wolf-like fangs, is the brooding, seething specter of the government examiner; his venomous pen poised to record every tiny error on his evaluation form. He is an intimidating figure that utters no sounds, except to bark two- and three-word orders which must be followed with exacting precision.

The exam lasts for thirty minutes and takes place in live traffic. Drivers can expect to face such delights as city streets, winding alleys, roundabouts, construction zones, hills, and the universally-despised parallel parking maneuver. If you’re unlucky (and many are), the latter two will be co-mingled.

The expectations of all parties are clear. Passing the exam hinges on the driver’s ability to demonstrate – for the first, and most likely the last, time in his life – a half hour of flawless, law-abiding driving. Many drivers crack under the pressure and flee from the car in tears. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and spoken with others who’ve seen it as well.

When the exam ends, the examiner will scribble something on his pad, hand the sheet to the driving instructor, and leave without a word. The instructor will hold the sheet tightly to his vest until the examiner is safely out of sight. Spanish rules mandate that drivers be informed whether they passed or failed only after the examiner has left the scene. Apparently, not all examinees have been gracious losers in the past.

With this background in mind, perhaps you won’t laugh quite so heartily when I tell you that I – after eighteen years (EIGHTEEN YEARS!) of driving experience – nonetheless failed the damn thing on my first try. It had something to do with me passing a bus, although to this day I contend that the bus was begging to be passed. I did, however, squeak by with a passing score on the second try. Countless others have not been so fortunate.

Having jumped through these expensive and time-consuming hoops, I am now the proud owner of a 23 centimeter long piece of tri-folded, non-laminated, pink cardboard with my photo stapled onto it. I am expected to carry this in my pocket at all times.

You would think that Spain, having implemented a screening process as arduous as the one described above, would be rewarded with a peerless population of safe, competent drivers. Not so. I’ve seen drivers here park their cars in intersections, pass three cars in a row in no passing zones, and – most unbelievable of all – drive in reverse around a roundabout.

Just think about that last example for a minute. Why on earth would someone drive in reverse around a roundabout? If he missed his turn-off, all he’d need to do is make another lap. That’s why they are called ROUNDabouts.

I don’t recall these kinds of things happening in Pennsylvania. Then again, Pennsylvania doesn’t have roundabouts.

Monday, August 02, 2004


Is Jesús lurking behind that brezo-covered fence? You be the judge. Posted by Hello

Jesús is my next door neighbour. No, not THAT Jesús; although I would suspect that many people in Tennessee have made such a claim. The Jesús I’m talking about really does live in the house next to mine, and he doesn’t have a beard.

Jesús is fifty, a mechanic and lives with his wife and two college-age children. He single-handedly built his house, including all of the plumbing and electrical work. He did a good job, too. Jesús hunts, drinks, barbeques, rides motorcycles, watches every Formula 1 race and entertains frequently. He built a special room in his basement for entertaining during the cold-weather months. It has a brick bar, bar stools, fireplace, medieval-style iron light fixtures – all of which he made himself – and a boar skin hanging on one of the walls. It’s a room that makes you want to don a fur cape, gulp down a flagon of ale, and then chop off Anne Boleyn’s head.

Jesús is the type of friendly, mild-tempered neighbour that everyone would have if neighbours were ordered from a catalog, and such catalog did not offer an “Underwear Model on a Trampoline” option. And he is valuable to me in many ways.

For one, he (mercifully) doesn’t speak English. This is important. Part of the reason my Spanish is so bad after living here for five years is that I converse with María and my co-workers purely in English. The last thing I needed, therefore, was a next door neighbour who wants to practice his English. No such problems with Jesús. We chat nearly every day, and he is remarkably patient with my “introverted second grader” level of Spanish. Oddly, however, our conversations rarely take place face-to-face or at eye level. Rather, they typically adhere to one of two formats: the “confession box,” or the “Romeo & Juliet.”

Our “confession box” conversations usually occur during early evenings while we are watering our respective lawns (and believe me, lawns in Castilla-LaMancha require a lot of watering). Our yards are separated by a chain-link fence that we’ve covered with “brezo.” Brezo is an ecologically-friendly curtain made of sticks and brush bound with wire. They are very popular in Spain for covering ugly things (like chain-link fences) or gaining additional privacy from neighbours and nosy pedestrians. Our watering-hour conversations take place through the brezo-covered fence. We can’t actually see other; only our silhouettes. In this regard, it’s a bit like being in a confession box; albeit without the associated guilt or the necessity of divulging my most impure thoughts to a man who pretends to have never had any himself.

Our “Romeo & Juliet” conversations occur during non-watering hours. Jesús’s house has a second floor terrace where he often sits and ponders life’s mysteries over a bottle of beer. My house has a ground floor terrace where I do the same, except with a glass of wine. Given that his terrace overlooks mine, it’s inevitable that we should ponder life’s mysteries together. In retrospect, I suppose this isn’t so unusual. After all, don’t most people look skyward when speaking to Jesús? Sorry…couldn’t resist that one.

In addition to the linguistic advantages of having Jesús as a neighbour, he is also a valuable source of technical advice. For example, I recently asked him for guidance on installing a particularly complex electrical component in my home. Jesús expertly suggested that if I twist the bulb in a clockwise direction until the point of tension, it would not only remain locked in its receptacle but would also emit light. Then he offered to do it for me if I should continue having problems.

In light of the neighbours we’ve had in the past – such as the fat guy in Oak Park who walked his puppy at 4am…or the Czech woman in Barcelona who was shocked that we didn’t hear the burglar robbing a Walkman from her condo TWO floors above us…or the stubborn Catalan who insisted on drying his underwear on the rooftop terrace where the building’s tenants sunbathed – we indeed consider ourselves lucky.

A different, more famous Jesús once said, “Love thy neighbour.” Our Jesús is a neighbour who’s easy to love.