Thursday, December 30, 2004


The New Year holiday in Spain is an important one—especially for the teenage and twenty-something crowd. For this group, the holiday is divided into three distinct phases: (a) dinner and grapes with family; (b) beer, wine and whisky with friends; and (c) New Years Day with Satan.

Phase 1 kicks-off the holiday on a wholesome note. Family gathers in the home for a large, New Year’s Eve dinner. After dinner, the family awaits midnight; at which time a special ceremony occurs.

Each person holds a bowl of twelve grapes and, at the first stroke of midnight, begins quickly eating them one at a time. If you succeed in eating all twelve grapes by the twelfth stroke of midnight, then you will have good luck throughout the coming year. Failure to eat the grapes in a timely manner brings bad luck. If you manage to pop all twelve into your mouth but one enters a lung, then yes—you (technically) should have good luck. But all things considered, it might be wise to avoid scheduling any skydiving excursions for the next twelve months.

After the grapes are eaten and all parties have either been kissed or administered the Heimlich Maneuver, the family opens and drinks a bottle of cava; thus ending Phase 1.

Upon commencement of Phase 2, the more youthful members of the family—and/or those who do not have small children—don their finest suits and evening gowns, wave bye-bye to the parents, and proceed to one or more parties at friends’ homes or night clubs.

Now…maybe it’s the fault of my American informality, but I’ve never understood why—given the hours of debauchery that are known to lie ahead—Spanish New Year’s Eve revelers insist on dressing to the nines. Surely it doesn’t bode well for your 100€ Hermés tie or 500€ Channel gown to be squeezed into a room where dozens (or hundreds!) of colleagues are dancing with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of red wine (most likely, their ninth of the evening) in the other. But I digress.

As the sun begins to rise, those revelers who are not lying prone in a puddle of drool leave the party in search of a bar or restaurant for a breakfast of hot chocolate and churros. This, of course, presents one last opportunity to irreparably stain any Hermés ties or Channel evening gowns that miraculously survived the previous seven hours in tact. The partiers then stagger home and into bed.

Phase 3 begins at 3pm on New Year’s Day or when the party-goer’s mother wakes him up; whichever occurs first. The rise-‘n-shine reflex of a Spanish mother is always a threat, because Spanish youths—unlike their US counterparts—typically live with their parents until marriage or age 43; whichever occurs first.

The bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived New Year’s Eve reveler then hauls himself from bed and spends the remainder of New Year’s Day savoring a crushing hangover; in all of its temple-throbbing, stomach-churning, tongue-coated glory. At 11pm, the by-now-long-suffering youth returns to bed, only to discover that he is unable to sleep because—let me remind—he didn’t rise until 3pm that same afternoon. If he’s really, really unlucky, the next morning will be a work day.

That pretty well summarizes the New Year holiday experience for the average young Spaniard. And me? Do I conform to this behavioral template? Not exactly. Here’s how I typically spend my New Year holiday in Spain.

I scrupulously adhere to Phase 1, after which I hit the sack. I rise—feeling chipper and well-rested—early on New Year’s Day morning, and promptly don a jogging suit. I then go to the streets of Madrid and chuckle at the disheveled, staggering, suit-wearing hordes trying to remember which building (if any) is that of their parents. When they get closer, I commence a vigorous session of deep-knee bends and jumping jacks on the sidewalk; displaying to all the joys of youth, health and vivacity.

Then, if the audience seems less than appreciative, I run. I usually don’t need to run very fast.
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Saturday, December 25, 2004


I’ve been to Naples, Italy, and saw no Pizza Huts®.

I’ve been to Patzcuaro, Mexico, and saw no Taco Bells®.

I’ve been to Nashville, Tennessee, and saw no Catholic youth organizations.

Why, then, are there tanning salons—like the one pictured above—in Madrid, Spain? Surely, it’s not for lack of sun. The sun shines here 364.67888 days per year.

Nor is it for lack of green space. Urban Madrid sports the enormous Retiro Park (if you want to lay on a blanket and tan) and the even larger Casa de Campo Park (if you want to tan some more…and then pick up a prostitute).

A tanning salon in Madrid, therefore, seems like a business venture destined for failure—just as I predicted with mobile telephones, garage-door openers and palm-held computers.
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Friday, December 17, 2004


Christmas in Spain is fun, because it provides many opportunities for amusing observations. Listed below are some of mine. I had—at one point—naively intended to publish each of these as its own stand-alone post, but that ambitious goal collapsed under the demands of my day-job and two year old daughter/dictator.

Of course, I’d be willing to un-collapse it if someone were to offer me a book deal. Someone? Someone?? ANYONE???!!!

Anyway…here goes:

* Starting promptly on December 1, TV airwaves are bombarded with commercials for perfume. These crack me up! Regardless of the advertiser, all Christmas-time perfume commercials share a common trait: they’re incomprehensible. They also follow the same general format, which I will now describe: (a) a pouting, anorexic, stylishly-unkempt model wanders apprehensively through a Yellow Submarine-esque setting (you know—the type of surreal backdrop that you might dream about…particularly after eating too many late-night burritos); (b) the model comes face-to-face with a giant bottle of perfume; (c) he/she straightens his/her spine, looks up at the giant bottle and cracks a sly smile; and finally (d) the commercial ends with a curt, French-language voice-over. Given that so few Spaniards speak French, I find this last point a bit suspicious. I’d wager that if you consult a French dictionary during one of these closing voice-overs, you’ll find that it translates to something like the following: “Esteé Lauder perfume—we could fill a bottle with goat urine, and you paella-eating peasants would still pay us 80€ for an ounce.”

* Perfume commercials appear at night. Afternoons, on the other hand, are the domain of children’s toy commercials. These commercial usually run about fifteen seconds; which is still eleven-times the attention span of the average 8 year old. What amuses me about toy commercials is their “fine print.” Apparently, advertisers are legally required to disclose, in writing, the toy’s price range (e.g., “More than 30€” – “More than 60€” – “You might want to consider a home equity loan”) and whether it requires batteries. Of course, these disclaimers—which are written in white, 2 point font at the bottom of the screen—appear and disappear in three beats of hummingbird’s wing; but that seems sufficient to satisfy the authorities. On the bright side, I’ve yet to see a Christmas-time toy commercial in French.

* Freixinet (the famous cava producer) airs the best Christmas commercials of any company in Spain—sez me! Each year, they break the bank to hire a big-name celebrity to star in the latest installment. This year’s celeb de jour is Pierce Brosnan. Freixinet then produces a minute(s)-long extravaganza of televised kitsch that is best described as “Bollywood meets Barcelona.” Freixinet’s Christmas commercial is a much-anticipated event. The company even takes out newspaper advertisements announcing when, and on which channels, it will air. Tellingly, they don’t disclose how many bottles of Freixinet are in Pierce Brosnan’s personal wine cellar—although I suspect that it’s considerably less than the number of Dom Perignon bottles.

* In case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced “fresh-in-NET.” If you’re wondering further, cava is Spain’s version of champagne.

* Codorniu is Freixinet’s main competitor in the cava market. Its annual Christmas commercial tends to be as lame as Freixi’s is dazzling.

* El Gordo is coming!!! And no…I’m not talking about Santa Claus.

* Speaking of Santa Claus, he might want to hire a new Brand Manager for the Iberian market. Why? Because here in Spain, Los Reyes Magos (aka, the Three Wise Men) are more popular. For those of you who slept through Sunday school (and/or Monty Python’s The Life of Brian), the Three Wise Men are the guys who followed the North Star to Jesus’s (and/or Brian’s) manger in Bethlehem. US children may be shocked to know that they actually have names: Gaspar, Baltasar and Melchor. Their day is not December 25, but rather January 6. More on this in a later post…maybe.

* One of the Three Wise Men (Baltasar) is black. Yet despite the recent immigration of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans into Spain, Baltasar—when appearing in parades or shopping malls—is usually portrayed by a white man in black face. Can you imagine how this would go down at a J.C. Penny’s in Little Rock, Arkansas?!

* I can deal with Santa Claus’s tepid Iberian popularity rating. What depresses me to no end, however, is the absence of Halloween in Spain. I feel like—each year—I’m robbed of my one and only opportunity for state-sanctioned cross-dressing.

* I may be the only person in Spain who owns Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas CD. This astounds me. How can a nation celebrate Christmas without Vince Guaraldi?!

* Ditto regarding Rankin-Bass’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. C’mon, Spaniards! Buzz Lightyear ain’t got nuthin’ on Yukon Cornelius.

* At least once during each Christmas season, some Spaniard will come up to me and ask, “What’s Kwaanza?” It’s good that they ask me, instead of Baltasar.

¡Bones festes, yawl!

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Thursday, December 16, 2004


...there's a new opinion blog in town, and it's called FERBLOG.

It's written by our cute and cuddly friend Fernando, and features his political and cultural rants, ravings and opinions. Check it out and post a comment...regardless of whether you agree with his views.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004


Spain’s annual Christmas Lottery is probably the biggest event of the holiday season. Make no mistake—this is no normal lottery.

It is, in fact, the world’s biggest gambling competition; and the sums involved are enormous. In 2002, the Christmas Lottery paid out 1.6 billion euros in prize money. Little wonder, then, that up to seventy-five percent of the Spanish population plays it. But the Christmas Lottery process can be as confusing as a Buñuel movie, so let me provide a quick primer.

Lottery tickets come in two varieties: décimos and participaciones. Décimos are a full ticket, and cost 20€ each. Participaciones are fractions of a décimo, and can be bought for as little as 1€. Of course, a winning décimo’s pay-out is similarly discounted.

With tickets in hand, all of Spain waits for the ceremony to take place a few days before Christmas. The ceremony is a rather formal affair that is broadcast on TV and radio. On stage are two giant, spinning, gold cages. Each cage is filled with numbered balls. The cage on the left determines the winning ticket numbers; the cage on the right determines the amount of prize money.

A pair of orphans from Madrid’s San Ildefonso Orphanage bound onto the stage. The cages are spun under the watchful eye of an auditor, and balls drop out of each. The orphan tending the cage to the left grabs his balls (heh heh…sorry ‘bout that) and chants the winning five-digit number (“Treinta y dos - ochenta y uno - cinco”). The orphan at the cage on the right then chants the amount of prize money payable to that winning number (“Un mil E-uuuuur-oooooos”).

These chants, I should mention, will continue echoing through your head for days after the Lottery has ended. If you thought that ABBA songs were sticky on the brain, then you’ll probably find the after-effects of Spain’s Christmas Lottery downright torturous.

Anyway…the scenario described above repeats itself hundreds of times during the next three hours of the ceremony. As such, there is not a single winning number as in “normal” lotteries, but rather hundreds of winning numbers. Most of the winning tickets pay out small to moderate sums. But not all do!

First prize—the BIG prize—in this competition is known as El Gordo (“The Fat One”). This is the reason that so many people play the Christmas Lottery. El Gordo can pop up at any time during the ceremony—it all depends on when that naughty cage on the right decides to cough-up the magic ball. In 2002, there were 180 people whose tickets matched the El Gordo number—and each of these tickets paid-out nearly 2 million euros. Not bad for a 20€ investment, eh?

When the El Gordo number is announced, TV crews rush to the place (usually a bar or Lotto shop) where the stack of winning tickets were sold; by which time, the winning ticket holders have already broken out bottles of cava (i.e., Spanish “champagne”) and are well on their way to getting drunk before millions of envious eyes.
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Saturday, December 11, 2004


…just look at the logo of this soon-to-be-opened baby/children’s store in Guadalajara, Spain!

At first I thought, “Looks like a mouse on a mouse pad…must be a computer shop.” Then I read the name more closely. “Somos Papás” translates to “We Are Parents.” Then it dawned on me. That’s not a mouse! That’s a sperm cell fertilizing an egg!!!

Now…I don’t know about you folks, but I’d be reluctant to go shopping for my two year old daughter in a store with this logo. What’s next? Buy 50€ worth of diapers and get a free lap dance?!

This must accompany the infamous Prawnography photo in the Virtual Tapas Bar Marketing Hall of Shame.
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Thursday, December 09, 2004


Roman Catholic nuns have many talents—not all of which involve the infliction of corporal punishment. In Spain, at least, nuns wield a wooden spoon as skillfully as they do a wooden ruler.

Perhaps I should clarify that last statement.

Cities and towns throughout Spain are dotted with cloistered nun convents. Most convents run some sort of commercial venture – e.g., charging admission to view their art collections, or selling needlecraft and other hand-made trinkets – in order to support their existence and charitable endeavors. But the most common (and popular) way for nuns to raise funds is to make and sell sweets.

Nun-made sweets range from almond-based cookies (like the Rosquillas de Almendra pictured above) to jellies and marmalades to moist little buttons of sugar and egg yolk called yemas. Some convents specialize in one or two items; others offer of a long list of choices. Offerings are typically influenced by the availability of local products—and donations. Yemas, for example, are often available at convents in wine regions. Why? Because many wineries use egg whites to clarify their wines, then donate the yolks to the nearest order of nuns.

But it’s not just the sweets that cause me to seek out convents whenever I visit a new city. I get equally excited by the transaction itself. Suffice it to say, a certain etiquette must be followed when buying from nuns. Let me tell you what it is.

When a convent is open for business (typically between the hours 9am to 2pm and 5pm to 8pm), the front door will be cracked open. Enter through the door and you will often find yourself in a foyer. Built into the far wall of the foyer is a Lazy Susan-type revolving tray. If you’ve seen that famous M*A*S*H episode in which the doctors gave an abandoned baby to a community of cloistered monks, then you know what I’m talking about.

Mounted on the wall next to the Lazy Susan are a buzzer and (usually) a list of the sweets for sale. Press the buzzer and – sooner or later – a nun’s voice will chirp from behind the Lazy Susan. Now this is the important part. Before the transaction takes place, you must recite the following script:
Nun: Ave María purísima. [Translation: Most pure Ave María.]

You: Sin pecado concebida. [Translation: Conceived without sin. Don’t ask.]
Now you may place your order. Once you do so, the nun will tell you the price. Put your money on the Lazy Susan, and give it a gentle spin. The nun behind the wall will take your money, put the box of sweets that you ordered (plus your change, if any) on the Lazy Susan and spin it back to you.

And that’s it! The transaction is over. The nuns walk away with the money. You walk away with the sweets. And nobody’s knuckles get whacked with a ruler.

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Pictured above is the “Lazy Susan” at the Convento Dominicas Dueñas in Zamora, Spain. I highly recommend the Rosquillas de Almendra.
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Tuesday, December 07, 2004


Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care book contains no recommendation that toddlers should periodically visit Bar Alcázar. I find this omission puzzling.

After all…“Ring Around the Rosies” and “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” are fine diversions, but nothing develops a two year old child’s hand/eye coordination like a brisk game of video poker.

If you don’t believe me, then check out the latest report published by the Wayne Newton Center for Pediatric Studies.
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Saturday, December 04, 2004


Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like the effigy of a man defecating behind a manger.

But strange as it may seem, Christmas in Spain’s Cataluña region simply would not be Christmas without the Caganer.

A Caganer is a little figurine of a man – typically carved from wood or molded from clay – with his trousers around his ankles doing “number 2.” Catalans hide the Caganer in their private and public Christmas-time Nativity scenes, and children delight in trying to find him. This has been a tradition in the region for hundreds of years.

The “classic” Caganer is that of a bearded peasant wearing a floppy, red hat called a “barretina” and smoking a pipe. But this is not the only model. Caganers now come in all shapes and sizes; the most popular being likenesses of celebrities, politicians and sports stars – ranging from David Beckham to George W. Bush to Osama bin Laden.

Caganer spectators typically fall into one of three camps: the amused; the repulsed; and the outraged. I obviously fall into the first camp. My in-laws (curiously enough, considering their surreal senses of humor) fall into the second. Catholic groups in the US fall into the third. Allow me to elaborate on the latter.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights – a New York-based group representing 350,000 members – went positively ballistic in 2001 when it learned that an exhibit at a California museum by the Spanish artist Antoni Miralda featured Caganers in the forms of nuns, angels and Pope John Paul II. The CLRCR wrote a snarling letter to the museum, complaining that the exhibit was offensive to Catholics. But alas, they don’t speak on behalf of all Catholics. The Roman Catholic Church in Spain, it should be noted, doesn’t complain about Caganers. They wouldn’t dare.

So, what is the point of the Caganer? How did it come to be? I’ve read various theories about this; the most prevalent being that the Caganer symbolizes fertilization of the earth and thanks for the sustenance that it bears. Put another way, the Caganer represents the poor farmer who, having taken the earth’s agricultural bounty during the harvest, lovingly returns the favor through the gift of his own, man-made fertilizer. Sort of a stinky quid pro quo, if you will.

Now…no offense to the farmers of Cataluña – and in particular, to those who prefer to drop their loads al fresco – but this explanation strikes me as the type of pretentious baloney that one might read in a Ph.D dissertation. Fortunately, however, I have my own theory about the origins of the Caganer.

Hundreds of years ago in rural Cataluña, a poor farmer named Jordi Puig (everyone in Cataluña is named Jordi Puig) became fed up – once and for all – with the local priest and his meddling ways. The priest had, for years, forbade Jordi from eating meat on Fridays. From drinking alcohol during Lent. And then, there was that pre-marital sex thing on which all priests are so fixated. Having reached the limit of his tolerance, Jordi decided that a bit of revenge was in order.

It was December, and the priest had set up an elaborate Nativity scene in the town center. Jordi, working at his kitchen table, carved the world’s first Caganer out of a two day old chicken croquette. Under cover of night while the town slept, Jordi placed the Caganer discretely behind the three wise men’s camel.

The next morning, the priest awoke to a crowd of excited children laughing and dancing around the Nativity scene. He pushed through the crowd to see what the hub-bub was about. And what did he find? Blasphemy!!!

Well…the priest was so outraged and distraught that he was unable to cook his own meals for six months thereafter. Or maybe it was six years. You know how priests are. In any event, a Christmas-time tradition had been born.

Now, I readily admit that I have no historical evidence to support this theory. Truth be told…I made up the story last Friday while drinking a café con leche at Bar Gema.

But you must admit that it sounds a lot more plausible than that “thanking Mother Earth for her bounty” nonsense.
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Thursday, December 02, 2004


Spain has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe. But you can’t blame that on a lack of storks.

If you look up any church bell-tower in central or southern Spain, you will likely see one. Or two. Or more. Pictured above is a white stork that I spotted on a church in Zamora (Castilla y Leon) last weekend.

Of course, storks are easy to spot…because they are enormous. They have six-foot wingspans. And if you think the birds are big, you should see their nests. I would not be surprised to learn that some stork nests sport a wet bar and home cinema. Rumor has it that Bruce Willis may buy a vacant one in Marbella for use as a winter home.

Spaniards seem to embrace the stork. Churches and other towering municipal structures actively encourage their presence by erecting platforms on which they can more easily build their nests.

Spanish tourists embrace the stork, as well. When my friend “Scott the Texan” visited last year, we took him on a day-long walking tour of the Madrid-area’s historic sites. And what’s the only thing he remembers from the tour? Storks.

Spain’s storkification does, however, require some caution. Specifically, I would not recommend standing too close to a church bell-tower. My grandmother once told me that being hit with a bird dropping is good luck. But where storks are concerned, there is arguably such a thing as too much good luck.
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