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Spain through the looking glass

Easter, Madrid

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What better place to spend the start of Europe’s great spring celebration than in the woods among the rabbits and the birds?

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Written by georgemills25

March 24, 2013 at 20:25

Snow melt

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Cercedilla, Spain, March 2013

Written by georgemills25

March 18, 2013 at 22:27

Posted in Uncategorized

The Good Book

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I went to Toledo a day late.

I visited Toledo on Sunday instead of Saturday because Spain’s national railway company Renfe couldn’t get its act together to sell me a ticket.

Whole volumes could be written about the vagaries of of rail travel in Spain but I promise to keep my rant as short: my trip to Toledo was delayed a by 24 hours because none of the ticket machines at Madrid’s Atocha station were working, and because the staff in the ticket office seemed more interested in chatting with each other than flogging off tickets for the 10:20 to Toledo.

You can imagine the scene: crowds of confused tourists, irate Spanish grandmothers in fur coats, a slightly nervous, slightly overweight security guard. The minutes ticking away. I missed the train.

My first official complaint in Spain.

My first official complaint in Spain.

Anyway, it turned out the Saturday trip down to Atocha station wasn’t entirely fruitless. I didn’t make the train but I did have the pleasure of filling in my first bona fide complaint in all my years in Spain. That’s right: I actually resorted to the hoja de reclamaciones, or the official complaints book.

If you’ve spent any time in Spain, you’ve probably been vaguely aware of the existence of such things. These books — part of this country’s rickety consumer rights infrastructure —provide a way for people to vent their frustrations over anything from cheating taxi drivers to churlish taxidermists. In Andalusia, for example, the hojas are actually obligatory for all businesses, whether they be a religious artifacts shop or a first communion fashion store or a flamenco designer’s boutique.

After a while, you don’t really see these little signs, in that same way you don’t — in a bar — notice all the posters of waxy-looking Jesuses decked out in crowns of thorns or the mouldering stuffed bulls’ heads that line the walls. So it is with the hoja de reclamaciones.

But last Saturday at Atocha station I entered into the fray of civil society and demanded The Book. Driven along by indignado rage, I stormed into the Renfe customer service centre and noted down my litany of frustrations into a purple A4 jotter which felt like something you might use to decorate the set of a television show about a 1950s advertising firm. My complaint was then carbon-copied in quadruplicate — seriously – before each individual copy was decorated with a seal.

The Renfe staff on duty could not have been less interested. They handed me the book almost wordlessly and then silently presented me with two copies for my records. It set me wondering how many millions of these complaints forms have been filled out and filed away in dusty cabinets over the decades. Will anything ever come of my grievance? I wait with not-very-bated breath.

And Toledo? Well, given that – for reasons which remain mysterious — all Spanish towns have to be the capital of something, I can safely report back that Toledo appears to be the capital of Marzipan and swordmaking. Neither of these were items that I particularly felt like buying last Sunday, but it did occur to me a day or two later that some sort of sabre might have come in handy at the ticket office at Atocha station.

Written by georgemills25

March 16, 2013 at 10:14

Spring in my step

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I’ve just had my first morning in Madrid after three weeks of living here. That’s to say, I’ve just had my first morning which didn’t involve alarm clocks and rapid-fire ablutions and gulped-down cereal before traipsing off to an office to sit before a computer.

Today, instead, I had one of those real mornings where sleep ebbs and flows and it takes you hours to climb out of bed and only then because it’s time to saludar al señor Roca, or greet Mr Roca, as the Spaniards sometimes put it, referring to the company that makes so many toilets here.

Anyway, this morning there were no mobile phones and I didn’t go online and the sun was shining so brightly in this city of Cervantes that I knew I would end up walking.

When I left the house, I thought I was going to the river. I’ve been staying in Madrid’s La Latina neighbourhood this week and each day I’d look at the map and see the tell-tale little sliver of blue and think: ‘I must get down to that bloody river’. So that’s where my feet took me first.

And actually it was just slightly disappointing. Because despite the impressive black fish and the solid bridges, the Manzanares is little more than a trickle really; it’s no Seine, and it’s certainly no Mekong. The city is re-landscaping the zone too, so that the river banks are dotted with a multitude of rather sad-looking saplings. Like upturned brooms, and worn-out ones at that.

But it turns out that I wasn’t destined for the river anyway. Apparently my subconscious mind had been busy fomenting its own plans these last seven days. Because after the river I continued on and into the vast green space that is the Casa de Campo, Madrid’s biggest park. It’s huge and very popular too, especially on bright Saturdays like today, I suppose.

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Casa de Campo, Madrid. Photo: Luis Pabon

For the first kilometre or so I was dodging alls sorts of odd people in neon costumes (joggers mostly and whooping, pumped-up bike mountain riders). Then I arrived in a whole other landscape, a sort of a park within a park. This mini-dehesa, or Mediterranean forest, was almost silent and dense with gnarly old oak trees, not to mention a sparse population of solitary forest philosophers doing very un-city like things like admiring sticks or gazing up into the sky at passing herons.

I started to climb and after a while I reached the top of a pine-capped hill from which I had views of Spain’s jumbled capital with its oddly-muted palette of cream and terracotta and Colombia blue and forest green.

Anyway, as the perfect morning slipped into history, and as I walked and my body started to remember what it was actually designed for, I had a delightful creeping realisation. Taking in the milky blue sky and the chattering parrots and the drifting storks, I became aware that this was spring welcoming me to 2013.

Written by georgemills25

March 2, 2013 at 22:40

Posted in España, Madrid, Spain, travel

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Madrileño by stealth

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For the last couple of weeks, I have waking up in Seville on Monday and getting on a train to another country called Spain. Or at least that’s how it feels.

After a period living in the capital of Andalusia, I now find myself commuting to Madrid for work. At the moment, I am in the national capital from Monday to Friday but soon my transition will be complete and I am even to become a citizen of this fine communidad.

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Madrid at dusk. Photo: Moyan Brenn

To be frank, it’s all quite disorienting. After last year’s sojourn in Saigon, I’ve been enjoying the relative intimacy of a city with just 700,000 souls, give or take a few. In Seville you get to know lots of faces, and can amble from one end of the old town to the other in a pleasant hour or so. In Madrid, by contrast, my fold-out map comes with more creases than a tramp’s spare pants. The sheer number of neighbourhoods here is staggering. Will I ever know my Chamberis from my Chuecas or my Legazpis from my Listas? It seems highly unlikely.

Anyway, last Friday evening, I caught the fast train back from Madrid and stumbled out of Seville’s Santa Justa station a little after midnight. Home. The city smelled of olives and a vacant lot was flush with flowers.  I thought: I will miss this place.

But the capital does have its virtues and delights. One advantage to being here in the centre of Spain – here in this city on the River Manzanares – is that they speak Spanish, rather than the language approximating Spanish which I have become accustomed to in Andalusia. I no longer feel quite so foolish with my highly correct Castillian.

I’m enjoying, too, the boulevards of Madrid, and the gentle slopes, for Madrid is a metropolis of inclines and slides. It’s an elegant old beast as well. On Gran Vía, there are shades of London’s Pall Mall while the residences around the Retiro are as slim-hipped and stylish as any Parisian apartment block. Then there are the armies of mincing long-legged women and – in winter – dark-coated old men who might be taking a break from the set of a fifties film.

But —but — will I ever feel at home here? Train rides have become such a metaphor for my life: all these cities as stations, apartments like luggage offices, a constant swapping of keys and letterboxes and corner stores and then a quick look over the shoulder as the place recedes. Next stop, señores pasajeros, Madrid.

Written by georgemills25

February 21, 2013 at 21:29

Radio patio

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The slang term for the rumour mill in Spanish is radio patio, an expression comes from the habit of eavesdropping on one’s neighbours via an interior patio – a common feature of many Spanish buildings.

The video here is a follow up to my previous post about noise in Spain. Here you can listen in as my upstairs neighbours sit down to lunch.

You have to crank up the volume to get a more life-like effect.

Written by georgemills25

February 17, 2013 at 13:22

Posted in España, seville, society, Spain

Anybody out there?

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Anybody out there?

Poor guy obviously missed the class on negative pronouns

Written by georgemills25

February 17, 2013 at 12:48