Saturday, February 21, 2009

The final post

Before my trip I had a nagging worry that since my last visit to Madrid (in 2006) I’d built the place up too much in my mind; I worried that once I arrived, the reality wouldn’t live up to my memories. But the opposite thing happened – the city took a hold of me. It would be an exaggeration to say that it now feels like home, but I will say that being there just feels right. Like when you meet someone and your personalities just click. I love the culture, the people, and – of course – the food; I can get around in most neighborhoods of the city without a map. It’s weird to think that if Wyeth (my former company) didn’t have a manufacturing plant there, I probably would never have gone to Madrid.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the U.S. and it will always be my home. But the experience of living in Madrid is one that I will cherish (and I’m already thinking about when I can go back). Fortunately, Ernest Hemingway has already expressed similar sentiments in writing better than I ever could. So I’m going to give him the last word. Thanks to everyone for following along on my humble adventures. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading as much as I’ve enjoyed sharing my stories with you.

Madrid is a strange place anyway. I do not believe anyone likes it much when he first goes there. It has none of the look that you expect of Spain... Yet when you get to know it, it is the most Spanish of all cities, the best to live in, the finest people, and month in and month out the finest climate. While other big cities are all very representative of the province they are in, they are either Andalucian, Catalan, Basque, Aragonese, or otherwise provincial. It is in Madrid only that you get the essence... It makes you feel very badly, all question of immortality aside, to know that you will have to die and never see it again.

- Ernest Hemingway, quoted from The Spanish Game by Charles Cumming

Thursday, February 19, 2009

La Gastronomía

Today we're doing a culinary tour of Madrid in photos. The Spainsh have never heard of vegan diets, low-carb diets, or the makers diet; in other words, they're my kind of people. Venga...

I think this is my favorite picture from the entire trip, an action shot of a tapas night out. Look at how perfectly formed the rings of beer are on my glass. Also on the table (moving clock-wise from my beer) are croquetas de jámon (savory fried dough with ham), huevos estrallados (fried egg and chorizo over french fries), tortilla española (basically a potato omlet), and jámon.

Speaking of jámon, I would be completely negligent if I didn't describe the national obsession that Spain has for all pig products. There's a saying that the only part of the pig that the Spanish don't eat is the sound. The store in the picture sells the highest grade of jámon, Jámon Iberico de Bellota. This ham comes from free-range black pigs that are fed a diet of at least 40% acorns (bellotas). If you look closely at the picture, it's selling for €41/kg. It has recently become legal to import it to the U.S.

Most bars cure their own ham legs, like you see here at Cervecería La Alemana (left hand side of the photo). When you order jámon, they hand-slice your ration and bring it to your table.

Calamares en su tinta (squid stewed in its own black ink) is a dish that I found surprisingly good. I've heard Mario Batali say that the ink tastes like the bottom of the ocean, and I can't describe it better than that. It was especially delicious to dip a piece of bread into the ink. The restaurant I was eating in was so unpretencious that they served my white wine in a juice glass.

This restaurant is on the Plaza Mayor (see yesterday's post), and uses this window to lure customers inside. I like their marketing campaign.

My favorite bar in Madrid, El Urogallo. They have the best tapas in the city... and for this reason, I stop by here for a drink 3 or 4 days a week. (I apologize that this photo is fuzzy.)

Spain claims to have the best olives and olive oil in the world. These marinated olives at El Urogallo are some of the best I've ever had.

The view from my regular table at Café Comercial. It's worth coming here just for the beauty of the cafe itself. It's unlike anything I've ever seen in the U.S.

The waiters at Café Comercial are no-nonsense, so I had to take this picture of my waiter pouring my café con leche on the sly. There's something about they fact that they pour the steamed milk at your table that makes it taste better.

My typical breakfast: tortilla española with café con leche.

Paella is native to Valencia, but you can get excellent paella at St. James in Madrid. This was easily the best meal of the trip... in fact, it's in the top 5 best meals of my life. These guys are the champions.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Fotos, ¡por fin!

After getting our technical issues worked out, we're back with photos. So today I'm gonna give you a whirl-wind picture tour of Madrid. There's a saying that Madrid is best experienced at night, and I took several night shots in an attempt to capture the essense. In some cases I've show both day and night photos to give the contrast. Enjoy...

I'm gonna kick things off by showing you around the apartment a little bit. This is the living room (this was my last day and I was packing; I don't normally keep my luggage sprawled out on the sofa).

Here's the dining room...

And my bedroom... which randomly had kermin the frog on the bed-side table.

I thought he deserved his own close-up.

This is a small plaza in my neighborhood... just to give you a feel for the area.

The main entrance of the Palacio Real.

The royal gardens on the opposite end of the palace.

A shot of the back end of the Palacio Real looking from across the gardens during the day...

... and at night.

Plaza de Oriente, which is directly in front of the Palacio Real. By day...

... and by night.

Quite possibly the strangest site in Madrid is the Temple Debod. This Egyptian temple was built in the 2nd century B.C. on the Nile River, but given to Spain in 1968 as a gift from the Egyptian government.

The Puerta de Alcalá, this was once part of the wall around the city of Madrid. As the city has expanded, this area is considered central Madrid. This puerta is right next to the Parque del Buen Retiro.

Artificial lake in Parque Retiro (analogous to Boston Common or Central Park). This park was once reserved for the exclusive use of the royal family. Now it's open for everyone.

Paseo de la Argentina, also in the Parque Retiro. Here's a photo of it in the summer.

Gardens in the Parque Retiro.

The Palacio de Cristal in the Parque Retiro. It often hosts art exhibits.

Atocha Station, the site of the 2004 Madrid bombings.

Inside the train station, there's an extensive tropical garden...

... which is home to a huge number of turtles (this is only a small fraction).

The Plaza de Neptune, which is in between the Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museums (two of the most famous art museums in Europe). When Atlético Madrid wins championships, its fans congregate here to celebrate.

The Plaza de Cibeles, with the Palacio de Comunicaciones in the background.

Plaza de Cibeles por la noche.

A close-up of Cibeles.

The Plaza Mayor, considered by many Madrileños to be the center of Madrid.

The Puerta de Europa, an interesting set of leaning towers in northern Madrid.

Top-level view of Estadio Bernabeu, the home of Real Madrid.

Field-level view.

The player benches (which were super-comfy, by the way).

And the trophy room.
So tomorrow we'll have a picture culinary tour, and Friday will be the last post: I'll wrap things up with some final thoughts.

Friday, February 13, 2009

El penúltimo día en España

Normally the last day of school has the sentiment of liberation and excitement. But today is different... it´s my last day of Spanish school, and it´s with a feeling of sadness that I say goodbye to my classmates and teachers.

This week each student in my class had to give a presentation about their job. Today I gave an overview of the biopharmaceutical manufacturing process. The good news is that I couldn´t have done this a month ago, so progress has been made. The bad news is that I feel like I still have such a long way to go in terms of learning Spanish. But I´m convinced that if I continue working once I get home, I´ll eventually reach my goal of fluency.

In the month that I´ve been here in Madrid, the weather has ranged from drizzly to partly cloudy, but this week it´s been sunny and warm every day. It´s as if the city is giving me a hug goodbye, which isn´t making it any easier to leave. I´ve been feeling a little melancholy all week knowing that my time in Madrid is nearly over. This place has an addictive quality about it... the more time I spend here, the longer I want to stay. This week I´ve spent a lot of time simply walking around the city trying to soak up its essence. My conclusion: there´s no question about it... I will be back.

Well... this is my last post from Spain, but I´m planning to make a few more once I get back to (finally) show some photos and to wrap things up. You´ll hear more from me on Monday... from Los Ángeles.

To the city of Madrid: Gracias por todo lo que me has dado. Me encantas y te voy a extrañar. Pero regresaré otra vez, te lo prometo. Hasta la próxima...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chocolate con churros

*Ron Burgundy voice*
Ladies and gentlemen, can I please have your attention? I've just been handed an urgent and horrifying news story. I need all of you to stop what you're doing and listen.

I´m happy to report that I have found a possible path to world peace: chocolate con churros. I know churros exist in the U.S., but they´re something you´d get from a street vendor. What I´m talking about is the good stuff you get from a chocolatería, because the chocolate is the key. Hot chocolate in Spain is much thicker than at home; it´s more like a chocolate sauce... it´s too thick to drink, you need to eat it with a spoon (the joke is that it´s thick enough to stand up your spoon in the middle of the mug).

So when chocolate con churros arrives at your table, it looks more or less like this. You dip a churro into the thick chocolatey goodness and enjoy. Suddenly the cares of the world begin melting away and your worries dissipate completely. By the time you´re finished, you´re stress-free and feel completely at peace. So that´s when I started thinking: why not apply these affects to the problems of the world?

Take, for example, the Middle East conflict (apparently I don´t believe in starting small). Sure, I understand that Hamas and Israel don´t see eye-to-eye (Hamas´ expressed mission is to destroy the state of Israel, and Israel believes it should continue to exist), but it still seems like they should find some middle ground if they met over chocolate con churros. (Kind of like the Camp David Accords, except with chocolate con churros.)

Of course, the affects of chocolate con churros are only temporary, so it´s very possible their disagreements would re-emerge afterward. Okay, so I admit that it wouldn´t be a lasting peace... but they´re delicious anyway.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Road Trip: Córdoba

Author´s note: Be forwarned that you are going to read the inner-workings of an engineer´s mind, and for some that may be a frightening experience.

I decided to get out of town this weekend, and took the AVE (Spain´s high speed train) south to Córdoba, in the state of Andalucía. I´m seeking warmer temperatures, new culinary experiences, and a glimpse of Moorish influence on Spain. The trip is ~400km (250mi), but takes only 1hr 40min by AVE. (There was a speedometer in my train car, and I noticed a maximum speed of 270km/hr (~170mph).)

Andalucía is on the southern coast of Spain, and is known for Arab influence in the architecture and food (and probably other things, too). This is explained by the fact that the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula (what is now Spain and Portugal) in the 8th century, and Spain did not re-gain control of Andalucía until 1492 (big year for Spain). The main attraction in Córdoba is the Mezquita-Catedral, which was built in the 8th century to be the largest mosque in the world. The building is beautiful and quite impressive if for no other reason that its sheer size; the inside is basically just one football-field-sized room supported by nearly a thousand double-arched columns. After the Christians´re-conquest of the area, the mosque was converted to a cathedral.

The mosque is by far the most famous and most impressive site in the city. However, I could not avoid playing to the stereotype: the site that resonated most with me was the river bridge that was built by the Romans in the 1st century, and is still in use today (as a pedestrian bridge). Walking around on the 2,000-year old bridge, I couldn´t help thinking about the engineers who designed it and oversaw its construction. Did these men set out to build a bridge that would last millenia, or were they just going to work and doing a job?

The experience reminds me of the time I visited Segovia (a town northwest of Madrid) two years ago. There is a Roman aqueduct in Segovia built in the 1st century without mortar or clamps, that is in immaculate condition today. It´s more than impressive; it´s inspiring... it´s reasons like this you decide to go to engineering school.

I break for lunch to ponder more questions about Roman engineering. (I have a lunch of native Andalucian dishes: salmorejo (somewhere inbetween a sauce and a soup, and made from made from tomatoes, bread, oil, garlic and vinegar) and flaminquín (sort of like a Spanish version of chicken cordon-bleu).) If I had been born in 1st century Rome, would I still have ended up as an engineer? Am I as talented as these men obviously were? Were they educated at a university or through apprentiseship? Were the same stereotypes true back then... Were Roman engineers socially awkward around women? Did they have unruly hair and wear rumpled clothes? Were they workaholics?

In the end, I decide (without evidence) that the answers to these questions are all ¨yes¨. In other words, I would have fit right in.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Un poquito sobre la moda

I´ve long been an outspoken critic of Ugg boots. They give a woman a frumpy, horizontal appearance; in short, they´re unflattering. And I don´t care how comfortable they are... you´re better off wearing tennis shoes. The prevalence of Ugg boots in the U.S. has been like a scourge on the land.

So I´m happy to report that I´ve made zero Ugg sightings since I´ve been in Spain. Instead, it´s very common for women here to wear fashion boots that look similar to English-style riding boots (I´ve seen them both with and without heels). This trend is much more flattering... these boots give a sleek, slender appearance. I´ve seen these boots in the U.S. before, but certainly not with this frequency.

Here´s to hoping this trend makes it across the pond, and cleanses our society of Ugg boots forever. :)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Menú del día

In Spain, people don´t take a bagged lunch to work... it´s just not done. And most companies do not have cafeterias on-site, so the vast majority of workers (both blue- and white-collar) go out to eat for lunch. To help the workforce of Spain eat lunch cheaply, most restaurants and bars have a menú del día during lunch hours (in Spain, typical lunch times range from 1:30pm to 3pm; but this does not stop them from refering to lunch time as ¨mediodía¨).

The menú del día is a pre-fixe menu that usually has 3 or 4 starters, 5 or 6 mains, and includes a drink (most people have beer or wine), dessert, and coffee. Depending on the level of the restaurant, the menú del día may cost between €8 to 15. Needless to say, this is something we need to import to the U.S. Each restaurant/bar posts the menú del día in the window or outside so you can decide if you´re interested.

If you walk around town looking at the menús del día, one dish you will often see is Cocido Madrileño. Madrileños are very proud of this dish because it is native to Madrid (most of the famous Spanish dishes are from the provinces). It´s quite an interesting dish because it is both a starter and an entrée.

Cocido Madrileño is a chickpea stew with vegetables and several types of meat. It arrives at your table in a small clay pot, and is accompanied by a bowl of fidoes (tiny little pieces of pasta). Using the lid of the clay pot as a strainer, you pour the broth (and only the broth) of the stew into the fideos, and there´s your starter (this is actually my favorite part). When you´ve finished that, you pour the solids remaining in the clay pot onto a plate, and this is your entrée. It´s not cocido madrileño without chickpeas, but the rest can be any number of a combination of vegetables and meats. Typically you´ll find carrots, potatoes, various sausages, beef, chicken, or even callos (Callos translates to stripe in English, but I´d never heard of this word to refer to a food before... I´ll talk more about callos in a future post).

It´s not my favorite Spanish dish, but it´s a necessary part of the Madrileño experience, and can be quite good depending on where you go. Taberna La Bola has a reupation for the best cocido madrileño in town, and it´s certainly the best place I´ve had it.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Wait, you´re not German?

I´m gonna take a break from talking about food today (but don´t worry, I have plenty more to talk about in that area) to share a bit of my day-to-day life as an ex-pat (I prefer to think of myself as a short-term ex-pat rather than a tourist).

Back in 2006, I was traveling back and forth to Germany on a fairly regular basis for work. I was a little surprised when I would be at a restaurant with American colleages, and the waiter would address everyone in English, but then try to speak to me in German . (For the record, my family background is a mixture of several northern European countries including: Finland, Estonia, Slovakia, Germany, Scotland, and some that escape my memory at the moment. And I don´t speak German.)

Sure, I understand that I have a vaguely German body type (tall, thin, blue eyes, light brown hair), but it was the conviction with which people believed I was German that surprised me. There is one particular example that stands out in my memory when I went into a coffee shop with an American colleague. My colleague asked the woman behind the counter if she spoke English. She replied that she did not, then asked if we spoke German. When he replied that we did not, we all looked at each other as if to say, ¨wow, this is going to be interesting.¨Then she looked at me a little confused and asked (in German), ¨Wait, you don´t speak German?!?¨

But okay, that was Germany; it´s understandable for people to get confused when everyone else around you is German. So I was a little surprised when it started happening here in Spain. There are students in my school from all over the world (including the U.S.), and we have introductions whenever a new student joins class. Here´s how it typically goes:

Maestra (or whoever): ¨So Cristian (that´s what they call me here), I guess you´re German. Or is it Dutch?¨
Me: ¨No, I´m from the U.S.¨
Maestra: ¨Really? But you look very German!¨
Me: ¨Yeah, a lot of people tell me that. But I´m definitely from the U.S.¨
Maestra: ¨But you even speak with a German accent!¨(referring to my accent while speaking Spanish)
Me: ¨What?!? I do?¨
Maestra: ¨Yes, a little bit. But your accent definitely doesn´t sound English. Are your parents from Germany?¨
Me: ¨No, I´m 4th generation U.S.¨
Maestra: ¨Really? Well do you speak German as well as English?¨