Tuesday, April 26, 2005


It has happened again. I’ve just had a five-minute conversation in Spanish, without knowing what the hell we talked about.

This time it was with Sonia—the woman who owns the beauty salon in downtown Cabanillas del Campo. She snagged me as I passed her storefront, en route to Bar Gema for a café con leche. This much I know—she wanted me to relay a message to my wife regarding a scheduled massage. But that’s all I know.

Our conversation went—more or less— as follows:
Sonia: Tikkity takkity tikkity takkity your wife’s massage tikkity takkity tik.

How pretty they are the large red bird that she flies across the pretty blue sky that is here in this day of very sunny and hot temperature in our town today.

Tikkity takkity tikkity takkity so please tell her what I said tikkity takkity tik.

It is him, how do I say it, that the pretty green telephone takes for herself a very big bowl of potatoes.

Great! Thanks, Sal! See you later!
At least, that’s how my brain processed the conversation. I can’t speak for Sonia, however. She seemed—much to my surprise—thoroughly satisfied with the outcome of our chat. She smiled appreciably and displayed none of the eye-rolling or tongue-clicking to which I’ve grown accustomed during past flirtations with conversational Spanish. Perhaps I unwittingly complemented her on her clarity of skin and firmness of thigh.

Anyway…the point of this tale is to illustrate that, after five years of total immersion, my Spanish-language skills remain almost as bad as those of President Bush.

I used to joke about this. When people would ask how my Spanish was progressing, I’d say, “Right on schedule! I’ve lived here for five years, and speak Spanish like a five year-old.”

But alas, the joke is on me. And humiliation has come from a most unexpected source: my two year old daughter, Inés.

For the past month, Inés has been giving ME vocabulary lessons. I knew this would eventually happen—but not so soon! The first hint of my impending doom came during a recent trip to Cantabria. We were hiking along a muddy trail, when the following conversation ensued:
Inés: Papá! I want to play in the charco.

[whispering to wife]: What’s a “charco?”

It’s a puddle. You might also be interested to know that “hola” means hello and “adiós” means good-bye.
But the humiliation hasn’t ended with vocabulary. Inés’s mastery of Spanish grammar—including verb tenses and reflexive pronouns—surpassed mine around the time that she graduated from diapers to underpants.

Such is my dilemma. But what is the solution? My wife and I have slightly different opinions on how to address my linguistic shortcomings.

Hers is that I should enroll in Conversational Spanish lessons at a nearby language school, and also participate in our local library’s Spanish-language reading group.

Mine is that I should give up.

And Inés’s? Well…she told me her opinion last night during dinner. But to be honest, most of it went over my head.
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Thursday, April 21, 2005


Just another quirky delight of living in Spain.

Where else can you look up while stopped at a red light, and see a huge rotating billboard touting suckling lamb and pig roasted in a brick, wood-burning oven? To go!

Thanks, but you can keep your McNuggets®. I want a hunk of that pig!

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Tuesday, April 19, 2005


This is the view from my home-office window. Is it just me, or are my neighbor’s trees giving me the finger while I work?
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I was watching Floyd Uncorked on The Travel Channel tonight, when I suddenly remembered this photo. It was taken after our 7th anniversary dinner at Restaurante Arzak in San Sebastian last July.

So I decided to post it. Simply to post it. Accompanied by neither entertaining anecdotes nor witty banter.

That it provides conclusive evidence of my left hand touching the right shoulder of Juan Mari Arzak—Spain’s greatest (and in the case of this photo, most demented-looking) chef—seemed reason enough.

This was my finest hour.

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Sunday, April 17, 2005


Some weeks ago, I posed the following question to my readers: Why do Spaniards place water bottles before the front doors of their homes?

Reader response—with explanations ranging from nocturnal water fairies to picnicing construction workers to canine potty-training—was both earnest and overwhelming! And, I should hasten to add, largely unhelpful.

Now, the situation has taken a sinister turn. Just look at the photo above, which I snapped while walking home yesterday afternoon. Warning: It contains disturbing images that may not be suitable for children!

You’ll note that two water bottles have (apparently) fallen victim to a lynch mob. Liquefied!—if you’ll pardon the pun. One minute, they were propped in front of a door quietly doing their jobs (whatever the hell those jobs are)…the next minute, these polystyrene martyrs were cut down in the prime of life—no doubt many months before the expiration dates printed on their caps.

Although I’ve yet to speak with Spanish police, I can only assume that this is the act of some ruthless vigilante group.

Perhaps a pack of territorial garden trolls intent on sending a warning to other inanimate objects invading their turf.
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Wednesday, April 13, 2005


¡Por favor! Encourage your people to emigrate to Spain! We need your cuisine!

I’m damn serious. It’s very difficult to find a good, authentic Mexican restaurant here. I’ve tried many in Madrid and Barcelona and, thus far, have found only one to be worthwhile. The others were about as representative of Mexico as The Olive Garden® is of Italy.

Spain’s lack of good Mexican food would be tolerable if I had the option of making it myself at home. But I don’t have that option. It’s almost as difficult to find Mexican ingredients (e.g., dried/fresh chiles, cilantro, limes, corn tortillas, etc.) in Spain’s supermarkets as it is to find them on a restaurant menu.

This fact may be shocking to some people. Especially to the 76% of US high school students who believe that Spain and Mexico share a common border. The other 24% believe that they’re the same country.

It was certainly shocking to me when I first arrived here. I vividly remember the day that bitter reality set in.

It was 1999 and we had recently moved to Barcelona. We invited a couple of friends—one of whom was from Mexico—over for dinner, and I wanted to make a Lomo de Puerco en Adobado recipe from Rick Bayless’s Authentic Mexican cookbook. The key ingredient for its all-important sauce was chiles anchos.

Chiles anchos are easy to find in the US. So easy, in fact, that they’re probably dispensed from gumball machines in certain parts of Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles. But no such luck in Barcelona. After combing the city from end-to-end, I remained empty-handed.

So I entered a popular Mexican restaurant in the city’s Grácia neighborhood, and engaged its owner (not Mexican, of course) in the following conversation:
“Where in this city of three million people can I find a chile ancho?” I asked.

Her response: “What’s a chile ancho?”

[Cheeks dropping to my pelvis.]

“It’s a dried poblano pepper.”

Her response: “There’s no such thing as a dried poblano.”

[Stunned silence.]

Of course, I didn’t say that. But the sudden onset of a twitch in my left eyelid must’ve conveyed the same to this apron-clad charlatan—or, at least, revealed me as a member of Charles Manson’s gene pool.

Now, you may be tempted to ask, “Aren’t Spanish and Mexican foods similar?” This is indeed a popular misconception, to which the answer is…NO! Spanish and Mexican foods have as much in common as do matzo balls and chicken vindaloo.

That’s not a slam against Spanish food. To be fair, I believe—and, in fact, have stated many times in writing—that Spanish food is great stuff. Few nations could make a goat taste so good. But Spanish cooks have one bias that is polar-opposite to their Mexican counterparts—they disdain spice. The typical Spaniard’s spice rack more resembles a book rack, in that it contains one jar of sea salt and a bunch of rolled-up Hola magazines. No cayenne. No garam masala. No oregano. Even black pepper is black-listed—often treated with the same contempt that a Mississippi farmer directs toward a boll weevil.

Now that we’ve established that Spain is a Mexican food-challenged nation, we must ask…WHY?! Why is Spain so deprived of Mexico’s exquisite cuisine?

The answer is simple: It’s because Spain has few Mexican immigrants.

But…but…but…Spain and Mexico speak the same language—kind of. And the weather here is much closer to Mexico’s than is, say, Chicago’s—which has an enormous population of Mexican immigrants (and, not surprisingly, an enormous population of great Mexican restaurants). Why, then, aren’t there more Mexicans living in Spain?

Again, the answer is simple: Mexicans won’t move to Spain, because SPAIN DOESN’T HAVE ANY GOOD MEXICAN FOOD!

Maddening, isn’t it? That’s why I’ve written this open letter—hoping that this vicious circle might finally be broken.

In the meantime…I’ll just have to survive on chicken vindaloo. Extra spicy, Ali! ¡Por favor!
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Saturday, April 09, 2005


Hollywood movies playing in Spain are often hilarious.

No, not because of the scripts—which tend to be devoid of comedic value, unless you have a weakness for jokes about passing gas. Rather, what’s funny about Hollywood movies is how their titles are translated.

Pictured above is a billboard for Vin Diesel’s new movie, “The Pacifier.” Only, it isn’t called “The Pacifier” here. Its Spanish distributor re-dubbed it “Un Canguro Superduro”—which translates to, “A Super Hard Kangaroo.”

With a title like that, it sounds less like an action comedy and more like a Discovery® channel documentary. A documentary that can only be aired after 9pm.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2005


It has been brought to my attention that—with my 38th birthday a month or so away—I’ve nearly reached middle-age. Most mathematicians would, in fact, round me up to forty. This disturbing realization led to a bout of internal reflection—from which I emerged determined to improve my physical fitness.

Now, in fairness to myself, I’m not exactly a poster-boy for sloth. I’ve regularly engaged in vigorous physical activity since my early teens. It’s just that my activities to date—i.e., compulsively lifting heavy pieces of iron, or kicking people in the head while dressed in a bathrobe—no longer befit a man of my advanced years.

So I decided, earlier this week, to begin jogging. This seemed like a brilliant idea. Jogging would strengthen my heart, burn my abundance of nervous energy, and expose me to fresh air and Iberian sunshine. Brilliant, indeed, except for one glitch—I HATE jogging.

I hated it in gym class. I hated it during my three years on the high school track team. And I was fairly certain that I’d hate it in middle-age. But I decided to give jogging another shot, hoping that it might prove more enjoyable when done of my own free will—rather than under the dictate of a whistle-tooting man in nylon shorts whose other job duties involved herding reluctant teenage boys into a communal shower.

Well…I’ve now got two days and five kilometers of jogging under my belt; and thus feel empowered to make some comments.

First, the good things about jogging.

The shoes! Spongy, yet firm. Springy, yet stabilizing. Resistant, yet breathable. Light, sleek and comfy. Jogging shoes are an engineering marvel! They are the greatest things to wrap around one’s feet, barring the fingers of a Swedish masseuse. In fact, I’ve no doubt that the majority of Earthlings would wear jogging shoes twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week, and to the exclusion of all other footwear—were they not so bloody ugly. But, my God! They ARE ugly. I can’t think of any other garment that so habitually combines the colors fluorescent yellow with reflective silver. If there’s a scientific reason why brown suede is incompatible with aerobic exercise, I’d like to hear it.

Now for the bad things about jogging.

Everything else!

Yet despite these bitter-sweet conclusions, I will continue to jog. I finally have my own private shower, and it’d be shame to waste it.
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On this fifth day of April 2005, I've put away my blue jeans and begun wearing shorts.

As they say in the real estate business: “Location, location, location!”

Friday, April 01, 2005


The circus has come to town!

That, in itself, is not a noteworthy event. Many circuses pass through Spain during bullfighting’s off-season; taking advantage of dormant bullrings as a convenient venue. However, a new circus (pictured above) reared its head this year:


This astounded me. Here is a nation that—having suffered severe famines over the past several years—can’t even feed its own population. Yet it sponsors a circus troupe that is touring Spain and, presumably, the rest of Europe.

Sadly, I was not able to attend this curious extravaganza—a missed opportunity that will undoubtedly haunt me until my next glass of wine. I did, however, try to imagine what might take place during a REVOLUTION 2005 performance.

Surely, REVOLUTION 2005 would have few (or no) animal acts. Any animals roaming around North Korea would have been eaten by a desperate population years ago.

Nor would it feature any short-stature clowns sporting curly wigs and Elton John-esque glasses. Boy-oh-boy!—that would be a very sad group of clowns once they see the “welcoming party” awaiting them upon their return to Pyongyang airport.

Perhaps REVOLUTION 2005 has a trapeze act. The acrobats would be wearing missile-shaped helmets and shouting, “Hey, Japan! Check us out! Check us out!” as they soar through the air with the greatest of ease.

Then there’s the “DESAFÍO A LA GRAVEDAD!” teaser that’s so boldly touted on the REVOLUTION 2005 sign. This translates to “A challenge to gravity!” Now, this sounds like an interesting act, but I have doubts. If North Korea had, in fact, developed some kind of anti-gravity technology, then the majority of its population would’ve surely floated over to Seoul or Tokyo by now.

No…I suspect that REVOLUTION 2005 is, most likely, a cross between a military parade and a Broadway musical. In my mind’s eye, the show would progress as follows:

A twenty-inch tall, miniature, Soviet-era tank rolls onto center stage. The top door opens, and out pops seven giggling clowns dressed in purple Mao jackets and enormous orange shoes. They bounce around the stage, doing somersaults and squirting mustard gas from their plastic lapel flowers.

The stage-lights dim, a brass band strikes up the I’m a Little Teapot song and out walks a performer dressed as North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il (aka, “The Dear Leader”). He clears his throat and sings:
I’m a little despot
Short and stout
Here is my afro
And toe plumped with gout.

When I need
Negotiating clout
I whip
Some nuclear warheads out.
Then—enter, stage left—come the “Glorious Revolution Dancers.” They twirl about the stage amidst colored lights and swirling confetti. The band strikes up the Choo-choo Charlie/Good n’ Plenty Candy song, and they sing…
Dear Leader started feeling kinda queer
Didn’t like those aeroplanes
They caused him fear.

Scratched his bristly head
Then let out a cry
And said, “I think I’ll take a train trip while my people die.”

Jong Il says,
“Pass that flask of cognac!”

Jong Il says,
“And a teenage virgin, too!”

Jong Il says,
“I’d look just like Pierce Brosnan
If I bought some contact lenses and some platform shoes!”
And finally—for the show’s big finale—the entire audience is herded at gunpoint into a sea-freight container and shipped to Pyongyang port for 20-25 years of signing affidavits and giving shortwave radio interviews.

The smarts ones bring along their popcorn and Milk-Duds®.
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