Friday, January 30, 2009

Café con leche and the Boston Tea Party

I don´t typically drink coffee when I´m in the US, but coffee is such an obsession in Spain that I thought I should give it a try to see what all the fuss is about. The most common way to take your coffee in Spain is con leche. Here´s how it works: Your waiter brings over a small mug that´s half-full of strong Spanish coffee made by an espresso machine. He places the mug in front of you, then tops it off with a pitcher of steamed milk.

Now you might be thinking: ¨that sounds a lot like the lattes I get from Starbucks¨. Trust me: it´s not. As I said, I don´t typically drink coffee when I´m in the US, but now I´m having thoughts that I should bring home a case of Spanish coffee and buy an espresso machine when I get home. It´s that good.

Well, my time in Spain is already half-way through. I certainly feel more comfortable speaking Spanish than I did two weeks ago, but I have the feeling that I´d need another several weeks to really speak well. Sadly, I´m due back in the office on Feb 16.

In class this week, each of us had to give a presentation about our home country. During my presentation, someone asked about the Boston Tea Party, and I´m happy to report that I was able to relate the story without too much difficulty. This is a big improvement over last week when I struggled to tell the story of the first Thanksgiving. So I guess progress is being made after all...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Libertad para Cuba

There seems to be a sizable Cuban population in Madrid, and as a result, there are a fair number of Cuban restaurants scattered around the city. Last week I went to check out a Cuban place called La NegraTomasa . When I heard Juanes playing on their sound system as I sat down, I knew I was in for a good time. I had wonderfully marinated pork with black beans and rice, and – I kid you not – the best maduros I’ve ever had in my life (they were perfectly crispy on the outside and just sweet enough inside). Sadly, Materva was not available, so I opted for beer instead.

(On a side-note: If you live in the Boston area, do yourself a favor and visit Oriental de Cuba. I had never had Cuban food before Agent Sanz took me here and my life changed for the better that day. I had discovered the culinary wonder that is the Cuban sandwich, and there was no going back.)

After eating, I was finishing up my beer when a few girls who’d been drinking together at a table across the way started talking to me. It was a little cumbersome to have conversation across the room, so they invited me over to their table. It was a group of psychology students who’d gone out drinking (mojitos) together after class. It was quite an international group: Cuba, Argentina, Columbia, Spain were all represented. As we were chatting, they complemented me on my Spanish, and I had the feeling of, ¨wow, I’m really doing it… I’m having a sustained conversation with native Spanish speakers outside of class.¨

But I must admit it was mentally exhausting… even though they were affable and engaging, I knew I couldn’t keep it up. They invited me to come out salsa dancing with them, but I politely declined. The thought of a white guy trying to keep up with a bunch of Latin Americans on the dance floor seemed absurd. But I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and we exchanged information.

One conversation point that I though was particularly funny was when they were asking me if I dance. I told them, ¨No, I don’t dance… I can’t¨. They asked, ¨Why don’t you dance? For religious reasons?¨ I said, ¨no, religion has nothing to do with it. It’s just that I’m white.¨ They didn’t pick up on my sarcasm (sarcasm seems much less utilized in Spanish), and thought I misunderstood what they were asking. It took me a few minutes to straighten out the conversation and get my actual meaning across: to me, being white is a perfectly good reason for not being able to dance… but they didn’t buy it. It took several minutes of convincing to assure them that I was telling the truth: I cannot dance; I was simply not born with the ability. Even then, they seemed a little skeptical.

¡Abajo Castro, y libertad para Cuba!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


You can’t walk around Madrid for more than 10 minutes without finding a cow on the street. Over a hundred nearly life-sized fiberglass cows are scattered all over the city center. It’s called CowParade, and it’s ¨an international public art exhibit that has been featured in major world cities. Fiberglass sculptures of cows are decorated by local artists, and distributed over the city center…¨

Initially, I ignored CowParade… the large numbers of tourists taking their pictures with the cows was a turn-off. But a conversation in class last week piqued my interest. One of my classmates presented an article about the CowParade as a sociological experiment (sadly, I cannot seem to find the article online, or I would provide a link). Apparently, someone has been keeping track of what happens to the cows as they are on display (the cows are completely out in the open, and are not protected in any way). The cows have not fared well in Madrid… many of the cows have been tagged with graffiti, some have had pieces broken off of them, and one was stolen outright (but later recovered). (On a side note: You’d have to really want one of these cows badly to steal it; each one weighs 400kg.)

The newspaper article said that this has been the case in all cities. Predictably, the cows were quite safe in German cities, for example. The article bemoaned Spain’s poor reputation in Europe, citing the example of a park in Amsterdam (apparently it’s a famous park, but I’d never heard of it and I don’t remember the name) that has signs saying ¨Please respect our public areas¨… but only in Spanish.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Vamos a tapear

When you go into a tapas restaurant in the US, you look over a menu, then order your food and drinks separately. That does happen in many places in Madrid, but the traditional tapas bars are different. For example, when I walk in to El Urogallo (my favorite tapas bar in Madrid), I just walk up to the bar and ask for a beer (many Spanish prefer wine of course). On the bar, there are small window-displays that contain all sorts of culinary treasures. After pouring my drink, the bartender scoops some of the culinary treasures onto a plate, and delivers it with my drink. I don’t look at a menu… I don’t even ask for food. And the result is delicious… the food makes the beer taste better, the beer makes the food taste better… everyone’s happy.

There’s some hierarchy to the food that magically appears beside your drink. With your first drink, you might get some marinated olives that arrive with a dash of olive oil and diced bell peppers and onions. These olives were most likely marinated on-site; trust me, you’ve never had anything like them in the US. With your second drink you might get a little patatas alioli (a simple garlic potato salad). And it only gets better from there: tortilla española (not a flour tortilla like you’re thinking… it’s sort of like a potato omelet; El Orogallo makes them better than anyone else in Madrid… I think they use meat drippings, which turn into kind of a sauce during frying), empanada (not like the empanadas of Latin America… it’s sort of like a pot pie, usually made with tuna or cod, and has a deliciously flaky crust), mejillones (steamed mussels, usually served with olive oil, bell pepper, and onion). My personal favorite is croquetas: a savory fried dough that can contain chicken, jamón, or even fish. I just had ensaladilla rusa for the first time recently; it’s a potato salad with tuna or crab, bell pepper, and onions (absolutely delicious).

I typically go tapeo (the Spanish verb meaning ¨to eat tapas¨) around 6pm because restaurants in Madrid don’t open for dinner until 9ish (and most Spanish people don’t eat dinner before 10pm). Since I make an appearance at El Urogallo several times a week, the guys take good care of me. Not only do I typically get large portions, but sometimes they’ll even ask me which tapas I prefer.

Tapas aren’t meant to be a meal… just a little something-something to whet your appetite and make your drink even more enjoyable. If you particularly enjoy something, you can order a ración of it (a larger helping that you pay for).

The Spanish are much more focused on wine than beer. Most bars only have one type of beer on tap (Heineken or a Spanish equivalent). Beers are typically served in cañas (about an 8 oz serving), so if you want something resembling a pint or half-liter like we’re used to in the US, ask for a doble (double).

This is by no means the end of the culinary story in Madrid. I’m sure I’ll have several more posts about food. For example, in this post, I´ve skipped what are probably the two most traditional Spanish tapas: jamón Serrano and chorizo… I feel that these deserve their own posting. But don’t worry, I’ll get to it all before we end!

¡Buen provecho! (Or as Alton Brown would say, ¨I bid you good eating¨)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Quarter pole

My humble apologies for the long pause between posts. My laptop won’t boot up, so that makes blogging more difficult, and it will be impossible for me to post pictures. Nevertheless, my goal this week is 5 posts. Thanks to everyone for your comments. It’s nice to know that people are reading at the other end. Anyway, let me catch you up on what’s happened in the past week or so...

Speaking Spanish feels more natural now. Last week for class we had to read the newspaper every day on our own, then present an article and the class would discuss it as a group. My personal highlight was when I gave a report on the Detroit Auto Show that led to an hour-long conversation about cars.

I’m surprised by how thorough the coverage of the inauguration was over here (for example, there was a sketch and technical specs for Obama´s limo). I don’t typically read the newspaper when I’m at home (although I do log onto several times a day), so ironically I’m more informed about US news than I would be at home. It’s also nice to know what´s going on in the local news... it makes you feel less like a tourist and more like an insider.

I spent a few afternoons just walking around the city to get re-acquainted. Sadly I can’t show any pictures since my laptop died, but here are a few places I went, and you’ll just have to take my word for it that I was there.

  • Plaza de Cibeles - An intersection of main streets that is probably the most recognizable landmark in Madrid. In the center is a fountain with a sculpture of the goddess of fertility in a chariot pulled by two lions. The palatial-looking building in the background used to be the main post office, but is now city hall.
  • Gran Via - Madrid’s main street. Upscale shopping, great architecture, and lots and lots of people.
  • Palacio Real - Built to be the biggest palace in Europe.
  • Parque Retiro - Madrid’s version of Boston Common/Public Garden.
  • Atocha Station - The site of the 2004 bombings. The station also has a large tropical garden inside complete with a turtle pond.
  • Plaza Mayor - This main plaza is beautiful... I don’t think we have anything like it in the US. My Madrileño friends tell me that the apartments on the periphery are the most coveted in Madrid, and are often passed down through the generations.
  • Puerto del Sol - This intersection is literally the center of Spain. There is a marker on the sidewalk indicating kilómetro cero; for postal purposes, all distances from Madrid are measured from this spot.

Sunday I took a tour of the venerable Estadio Santiago Bernabéu (the home of Real Madrid). This is like the Fenway Park of Madrid, but if I’m honest, I thought it lacked a little personality. I’m sure I would feel differently if it had been full of 85,000 screaming fans. And the history of the team is undeniably impressive.

I’ve had some great food since I’ve been here, and tomorrow I’ll go over it in some detail.

Monday, January 19, 2009

First day of school

Even at age 28, the first day of school still raises the same questions. Will I get along with my classmates? With my teachers? Will I be able to keep up with the material? But first things first: I have to take a placement test as soon as I arrive. There are written and orals test, which are both straight-forward except for one question in the written section: it shows a few pictures, and you have to make up a story to interpret them. It’s not that I’m concerned about writing a story in Spanish… it’s that I’m a stereotypical engineer… I don’t have that type of creative ability.

Anyway, I get placed in a class with three other people (2 Aussies and a Pole). We have an hour and a half of grammar, then an hour and a half of conversation. I keep my head above water for the most part, but struggle when they ask me what Thanksgiving is all about. Telling the Pilgrims’ story in Spanish was not something I anticipated, but I manage to get the idea across… eventually.

jetlag, cafe con leche, and family dinner

Author’s note: I plan to have photos in the blog, but this entry did not lend itself to taking photos. Hopefully you don’t mind.

Back in undergrad, Kris and Justin Yee (two of my fraternity brothers) taught me how to play guitar. Eventually I got good enough and the three of us formed a band (=sa=). Before we played our first show, Justin warned me that I would only be able to tap into half my guitar skills. And he was right… everyone gets nervous during first rock show – I couldn’t help but get stage fright. (Fortunately, Kris and Justin are bona fide rock stars and they easily picked up my slack.)

I have the same feeling as the plane touches down in Madrid, only worse. Suddenly it seems like a struggle to come up with the most basic of Spanish vocabulary. Everyone else was speaking fluent Spanish and I was the least prepared person on the plane. Well, at least that’s how it seemed at the time (I’d like to think jetlag was a factor).

Fortunately, a familiar face was waiting at the airport – my friend and former colleague from Wyeth Madrid, Bernardo. My brain started to loosen up and slowly I started speaking in Spanish… it was a start.

After we catch up a little, Bernardo tells me that his family is having Saturday dinner together, and they would like me to be their guest. I’m touched… in Spain, weekend dinners are usually shared with family and close friends, and to be invited is an honor. Of course I enthusiastically accept the invitation.

Bernardo drops me off at the apartment that will be home for the next month. I’ll fill you in on the details and show photos in a future post. For now, suffice to say that while not luxurious, it’s comfortable, clean, and will do quite nicely. This is a relief to me… I found this place through internet classifieds, and basically chose the place from looking at online photos. A lot could have gone wrong.

I settle in briefly, and then go for a coffee at the famous Café Comercial. Café Comercial is the type of quintessential old-world café that can only be found in continental Europe, and I feel that it’s the perfect place to start the trip. The waiters wear white coats and there’s marble everywhere. I order café con leche to counteract jetlag and bocatín de jámon – a very Spanish breakfast.

Later I meet Bernardo and he takes me to his parents’ house for dinner. (I’m calling it dinner because it is the main meal of the day, but we start eating around 3pm.) Bernardo’s sister has a friend visiting from Italy, and the two of them have made dinner for the family – lamb chops, clams (without shells), gnocchi, green salad, plates of olives, cheese, and crackers. And of course, Spanish wine – both white and red. We eat in the Spanish style… no one’s in a hurry; after the starters and main course, we sit around the table chatting for more than an hour over café con leche and a plate of sweets. Some time later fresh fruit appears and after-dinner drinks are offered. I forgo the after-dinner cocktails since I’m still not feeling feeling right after the flight, but the Madrileños all partake.

It’s only been one day, but my listening comprehension certainly needs to improve. I’m constantly straining to understand when people speak to me, and background noise seems strangely magnified. But I expect (and hope) that my ears will adjust in less than a week. Until then it will continue to be a bit of a struggle…

Monday, January 12, 2009

An Introduction

Roman (along with several others) has been urging me to get my own facebook page, but I have steadfastly resisted the peer pressure (mostly out of laziness – the effort required to post consistently witty comments on my page seems exhausting). But this left the question: how would I keep in touch with people back home during my 4 week trip to Spain? Roman insisted that I couldn’t just go incommunicado for this period. And I must admit that I like the idea of sharing my Madrileño experiences with people back home. So we decided that the best (though perhaps clichéd) solution is for me to keep a blog. Here’s what you should know before we start out:

Madrid has a well-earned reputation as a party city, but I first visited Madrid for work. In 2006, my company sent me to its manufacturing plant in Madrid to perform some equipment testing. (Side note: I’m a chemical engineer and I work for a biopharmaceutical company. But feel free to think of me as a professional nerd; it is easier to remember and every bit as true.) By the end of that month-long trip, I realized that I love the city of Madrid... in a way that I can only compare to my love for Boston (the city I consider home). So I resolved to make another extended visit.

And it’s taken me longer than I anticipated, but finally... I am returning to Madrid. For another month-long trip. But this time, I’m on vacation. What will I do with myself for an entire month in one city? Well, here are my objectives. (Yes, I recognize that normal people don’t have trip objectives when they go on vacation, but I’m a professional nerd... work with me here, people.)

1. Finish learning the language
I’m about half-way fluent in Spanish right now. To improve things, I’ll be going to language school every weekday morning while I’m in Spain.
2. Blend in with the locals.
The idea here is to seek out the real Madrileño hang out spots. Tapas bars, cafes, markets, soccer stadiums, flea markets, etc. We want the real experience.
3. Take in as much of the culinary delights of Madrid as possible.
I’m a bit of a foodie, so it’s quite possible this blog could end up reading like an episode of Tasty Travels. But I’ll try not to let that happen.

So yeah, that’s the plan. I arrive in Madrid on Jan 17... you’ll hear more from me then.