Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving in Madrid

Wendy likes to host parties. Luckily, after decades of not even going to parties, I find that I also like to have people over and play host. So, this year we hosted Thanksgiving in Madrid. We can have it whenever the hell we want, because (you may not know this) but they don’t actually celebrate Thanksgiving here! They’ll take two weeks off to celebrate a Saint’s birthday and a weeklong festival to revel in the glory that is the first onion harvest of the season but can’t be bothered to kill a bird in honor of being shown how to grow corn by the… This is going nowhere. I’m trying to pretend to be ignorant of the fact that it’s solely an American holiday and I clearly haven’t had enough caffeine to make that amusing. Fail! Let’s move along shall we?

Turkey is quite popular in Spain but if you want to roast a whole turkey you need to special order it. We check a few butchers and they all assure us it is no problem. We settle on the nearest butcher that just happens to have the nicest people as well and order a seven kilo bird. When we go to pick it up on Thursday of the next week, I know I’m not in Kansas anymore. And by Kansas I mean anywhere in the United States. It is unfrozen, unwrapped and still has a good number of feathers in the cracks of its body. I am surprised it doesn’t still have feet and head attached which is how whole birds are usually sold in Spain.

The butcher presents it to us, we tell him it’s fine and he wraps it three times in clear plastic and puts it in a bag. On Saturday morning I unwrap it, clean out some remaining guts on the inside and wash it thoroughly. It looks like a field dressed deer on the inside, not the clean sterile inside of the Butterball we used last year. I’m feeling pretty good about this. Just looking at this complete thing you know this bird really came from a farm and was killed a few days ago. It has never been frozen and hopefully lived an almost free range life instead of being jammed into a tiny space in a factory and fed antibiotics all its life.

Now it’s time to start plucking feathers. It is ten in the morning and the bird needs to go into the oven in an hour. At the ten-fifteen mark I ask Wendy to give me a hand because at this rate, I’m not going to make it. Fifteen minutes later and we are still plucking feathers and our fingers are sore. I pull out a pair of needle-nose pliers and Wendy heads to the bathroom for her tweezers. It’s not like the bird is covered. It’s clearly been stuck in some machine that has removed ninety percent of the feathers, but it has left many of the quills in the skin. And, in the nooks and crannies (think armpit) and at the base of the legs of the bird are whole feathers that avoided the machine.

We finish plucking right at eleven and I rub it down with salt, pepper and butter and take a good look at it. Okay, according to my brother-in- law “Chef Todd” the bird is supposed to be roasted until the last half an hour – breast down. (We did that last year and it turned out juicy and delicious.) But this isn’t an American bird with enormous genetically engineered breasts. This thing is flatter than a ten year old boy. I turn it different ways and finally decide I’ve got it right and plop it into the oven (it just barely fits) at eleven-oh-five.

Three and a half hours later I pull it out and with Wendy holding the pan, I use a wad of paper towels in each hand to absorb heat and flip the bird over. (I use special heat-resistant rubber gloves in the states. They’re great for pulling lobster out of boiling water and then dismembering them, still steaming, too.)

“Huh.”

“What?”

“That doesn’t look right. I think I’ve cooked it breast side up.”

“Will that matter?”

“Not really, that’s the way most people do it anyway.”

I flip it back over, add two cups of water and half a pound of butter to the bottom of the pan and stick it back in the oven. Then I start basting what could be its breast or could be its buttocks, I don’t know. Guests arrive on perfect Spanish time; a half an hour late, which is exactly what we planned. I pull the bird out after a half an hour of basting, cover it and let it rest. Wine for everyone!

We have a great time chatting and make what we call “group gravy” with Wendy and I not entirely sure how to do it so Alana and Candy jump in with help and advice. A half an hour after that, I carve the turkey and it is still damn hot on my fingers. My kingdom for some padded rubber gloves! As I slice into it, I actually cannot find the breast at first. I have cooked the damn thing upside down the entire time!

Luckily it had no negative side effects and the bird is delicious, perfectly cooked and most of all, juicy.

Since it didn’t look like an American bird we were actually concerned we might not have enough meat. I can assure you, after five turkey sandwiches the last three days and still a couple more pounds in the fridge, we needn’t have worried.

Today we are packing for the trip home where we will be having Thanksgiving with Wendy’s brother Jimmy, their kids and his wife’s family.

Once again I will strive to keep up with the updates while we are home.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Monday, November 16, 2009

The joy of flying.

The airlines deserve to go out of business.

Because they are insane.

Having worked at an Inn in the past, I know how things work. If the room is empty, that equals zero dollars. If someone comes in at three in the morning and wants a nice room, you can sell them the bridal suite for sixty bucks and make a profit. See, I know this is hard to comprehend, because math is hard, but sixty bucks is greater than zero bucks. It doesn’t matter that the bridal suite usually rents for over two hundred bucks. 60 > 0.

Airlines have some insane business practices that I will never understand. It seems like they want to go out of business. For those of you who do not fly often, let me enlighten you to some of the crazy things they consider smart business practices.

It costs more to fly ONE-WAY to Madrid than it does to fly round trip to Madrid and back again. Actually, it is cheaper to fly round trip ANYWHERE than it is to fly one-way. How does this make any business sense at all? When I flew from Miami to Madrid I booked a round trip ticket, knowing that I was never going to show up for the return flight home. They lost a seat on that trip. They probably paged me, holding up the flight back to the states. I hear it all the time in airports, paging people for flights they will never show up for. They could have sold that seat if they didn’t demand that I be smart and book a round trip ticket and save myself five-hundred dollars.

Another thing they do is overbook flights, taking their cue from inn’s and hotels. Except, see, people might get caught in traffic or find a nicer place to stay at the end of the day and not make their hotel reservation, freeing up space for other people. But NO ONE is going to spend a thousand dollars on a trip across the ocean and then NOT SHOW UP. What? You think they’ll decide not to FLY ACROSS THE OCEAN? You think they got a better offer and just blew off a thousand dollar reservation? You think on a whim they decided not to see their family on the holidays? What the hell is wrong with you? If you overbook a flight – ALL of those people will show up and you will have to pay them to take another flight and have pissed off customers.

There is no other outcome.

This rant is brought to you by Wendy trying to use our miles to upgrade us to first class this morning. In order to do that, we need to spend an additional $2500 a piece AND use a thousand bonus points from our frequent flyer stash.

How stupid is that?

We could buy first class tickets for LESS THAN THAT. Somehow, they seem to think that once you have tickets, it is smart business sense to charge you more than canceling your ticket and buying a new one for first class than simply upgrading you.

Wendy always asks when we get to the counter “Can we upgrade to first class for this flight?” And is always told it will be some insane amount which we immediately decline. Then we get on the plane and notice they have ten free seats in first class; seats that we would have given them money for. Remember our earlier lesson?

Sixty dollars is greater than zero dollars. But the airlines have a blissful, almost happy ignorance to this fact. Smiling desk clerks will tell us “You cannot upgrade your type of ticket” or “It will be two thousand dollars to upgrade you to first class.” (I’m not kidding or exaggerating, first class, even on the day of the flight; with extra seats, is thousands of dollars more.)

Really? It’s better to fly across the Atlantic and pay your pilots less than a high school teacher than it is to upgrade us for a reasonable amount and fill those seats? That’s your business model?

You deserve to fail.

Whoever runs you is an idiot.

Sadly, this is not the example of one airline, but every airline we have ever traveled.

Thank you.

I'm actually starting to make a small amount of money off the "Project Wonderful" ads on the side, so thank you to those people who have been clicking them!

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Adventures of Naked Jamie!

I think I mentioned that Wendy and I have joined a gym. I look forward to going every day. Much like traveling to Europe and seeing the world, I did not know that I needed it, but I do. It feels fantastic to be working out again. After three weeks I am finally to the point where I have to push myself very hard to be sore the next day. I am sore today, but not horribly so.

I used to work out with a couple people over the years in college. My last workout partner in college was Doug Shepardson, the man watching my house and dogs in Vermont right now. We are of similar, slender, wiry builds. No matter how much we worked out, we got more cut and the weights went up but we didn’t get bigger. We didn’t bulk up like we wanted. After months of this we approached our friend Lloyd who was an extremely nice, powerful, squat, incredible dancer and also Vermont State Champion in amateur bodybuilding. First thing he asked was:
“What do you eat?”

“Eggs, fish, steak… lean proteins mostly.”

“How much of them do you eat?”

“I don’t know; the normal amount.”

“Then you’re not eating enough. You need to eat 5000 calories a day to get the results you are looking for.”

Five THOUSAND calories!?!?!

We took his advice to heart and stuffed ourselves day after day. Steak, pizza, whole chickens, hot dogs, protein shakes, a dozen eggs a day and more. It was insane. We were constantly sore from working out and bloated from trying to ram just one more piece of pizza down our throat. We were at the gym or we were on the coach eating or resting.

But it worked. We bulked up to the best shape either of us had ever been in.

And now I’m back at it. The feel of the steel bar in my hands as I grab it and swing myself under to do four sets of bench press is like a welcome home handshake from my father. Wendy either does classes or runs on the treadmill while I rotate from free weights to machines and back again, breaking down all the muscles of my upper body two and even three times using slightly different exercises. I’m working out even harder than I did in college.

And I am ravenous. I now understand what it must like to be one of those people who are always hungry. They range from my friend Dan Renfro who can eat as much as four men yet remains slender as a willow (despite being over forty) to the enormous people with bad genes that can’t ever feel full. That’s what I’m like these days as my body tries to rebuild the muscles I have destroyed in my workouts. But unlike college, I don’t want to bulk up. I want to get rid of my gut and see definition in my arms and chest again. So, I’m hungry all the time, but can’t eat any more than normal and go to bed hungry most nights. On bad days I succumb and eat a huge piece of salmon, then fry up some eggs, then some Doritos with salsa, then some bacon crackers and half an hour later I’m looking in the cupboard to see if there’s anything else I can eat, preferably something healthy that will help my muscles and not my middle grow. Hey look, tuna fish! I’ll make a couple tuna fish sandwiches on wheat bread.

Ravenous.

As you may know, I’m in Spain. Spain is going through a cultural revolution that is akin to the seventies and eighties in the United States. A vast majority of Spaniards do not work out. As a rule, they are very slender. As I noted in a past entry I was shocked to go home and see so many obese people in the states. But then I realized there were an equal number of people that worked out and looked like Greek Gods compared to Spaniards; fit and alive and glowing with health. The fitness craze has been going on for decades in the US. It’s just starting here and watching Spaniards work out is simultaneously hilarious, baffling and as always, a chance to practice patience and work on your inner calm. Otherwise you might strangle someone.

When I get to the gym I ride the bike for ten to twenty minutes depending on the day and then I like to hit the bench press. One day I got off the bike and there was a towel laid over the bench, signifying that someone is using it. So, I go do some other exercises and ten minutes go by and still no one shows up. I finally figure out it’s one of two gay guys hitting on each other at the water cooler. I move the towel out of the way, add some more weight (I bench more than almost every other person I have seen in the gym, and I’m forty-four) and start my reps. He comes back over in the middle of my set and asks if he can work in and I tell him fine. He does one set then wanders around the gym a bit. I finish up my fourth set and move on to curls. I watch him the rest of the day and he clearly has no idea about gym etiquette. He will lay his towel over a machine he’s not using, use the one next to it, then go chat with someone for ten minutes. Essentially monopolizing a machine for no reason, not getting in a good work out and just wasting time.

Then there was the young, fit guy who asked me if I was almost done with the bench and I told him I had one more set. He took over when I was done (removing twenty kilos) and did a set, then sat on the bench for ten minutes watching people. I moved over to another machine, did four sets before he attempted his second set. I moved to another machine, he is still resting. I finished my work out, doing four sets on eight other machines or free weights by the time he was done with the bench, forty minutes later.

They have three treadmills and again, hilarious. We like the guy who gets on, lays his paper on the display and walks for twenty minutes while he reads the paper. I get that much exercise getting to the gym! Dude, what the hell are you doing?

Wendy is a machine on the treadmill, cranking it up to ten and running for twenty-five to thirty-five minutes a day. I’m always impressed when I see her run. Most Spaniards run at about a five or a six setting and for about ten minutes and then walk for another ten to cool off. Yesterday Wendy had to wait for a treadmill while two guys actually ran and one guy sedately walked for twenty minutes. And there’s no sign up sheet so she had to stand there the whole time because if she went to another machine someone would jump on the treadmill the second it was free.

It’s very seventies in the sense that working out and being fit is a brand new concept here and many people don’t know what they are doing. This is nice in some respects because there aren’t any massive young hulks wandering around intimidating me with their fitness and my lack thereof. No, I’m one of the fittest guys there and I know what I’m doing. There is a trainer who wanders around and constantly corrects people’s form or even explains how to do different exercises and, I am proud to say, she has never corrected me on anything.

It’s funny sometimes to watch people spend all this money for a gym and not even walk or bike fast enough to work up a sweat. I want to just tell them: You have no idea what you’re doing, do you. And no, that’s not a question. Other times is pure frustration as they sit and chat at a machine you want to use or leave their towel on a machine and then leave for twenty minutes. Luckily there are enough stations and free weights I can almost always find something I can work on while waiting. It’s also nice to be forty-four and out-lift 98% of the people that are members of the gym.

Progress is slow no matter how hard I work. Like in college I am going up in weights and reps and all of that is very satisfying, but staring in the mirror progress is glacial. I look better, but not as much as I would have liked after three weeks of working as hard as I have. I only have two weeks left before we go home and I was hoping to look a lot better. Oh well, it will come.

Soon I’ll be ready to make my appearance as this world’s first superhero: “Naked Jamie.”

You could say I’m a nudist. I don’t mind clothes and in fact, I love some of my clothes, but like a two year old, first chance I get I’m walking around the apartment naked . This has made Wendy brand me “Naked Jamie” which she says whenever I get undressed. I’m very good at getting undressed. Wendy and I will retire to the bedroom at the end of the day and she’ll sit down, start to take off a sock and I’m naked in bed reading by the time she finishes. “What the…?” How do you do that?

“It’s my superpower. Worst superpower ever.”

One night in Santorini we laid in bed and cracked up imagining how your life would be as a superhero whose power was the ability to get naked in a split second.

Imagine the scene in “Hancock” where instead of Hancock, the little boy wakes up Naked Jamie sleeping on a park bench.

“What?”

“Bad guys” and points at a big TV.

Naked Jamie stands up and strips off all his clothes. Kid runs screaming.

Lois Lane is falling to her death, Naked Jamie runs into a phone booth, strips off all his clothes and thinks “Okay, now what…”

Or maybe a bank robbery is happening so Naked Jamie runs in and strips off all his clothes. Startled, a robber shoots him. While lying in a pool of blood Naked Jamie whispers “Worst… power… ever.”

Or maybe he succeeds in foiling the bank robbery; shortly after doing so Naked Jamie is arrested for public indecency. A woman interviewed on the scene exclaims: “I had kids in there. They don’t need to see that!”

Paper headlines the next day read “Crime spree ends and continues as Naked Jamie foils bank robbery and then arrested.”

“Mayor pleads with hero of the city ‘Can’t you just solve crime with your clothes on?’”

Swine Flu! Oh nooooos!

So, no one liked the last entry? No replies at all? Much like the old days of writing about Magic, I can never guess when I have done something really good and when I have not. I thought it was great and last night asked Wendy what she thought of it.

"It wasn't one of your better pieces."

Huh.

I would write a Magic column that I thought was utterly brilliant and get ten emails the next day, more polite than effusive. I would write something that I struggled with and knew it wasn't my best effort and I would get seventy-five emails the next day and another twenty-five the day after that, all glowing with praise.

I just never know.

What does this have to do with Swine flu? Absolutely nothing! Just ranting I guess. I'll get back on track now.

I hate Doomsayers.

I have read in many places that Swine flu is actually less dangerous than the regular flu, and I have also read that Swine flu could be the next pandemic. I always choose to believe the more optimistic news about anything, and I am usually right. Luckily, I have a friend who works in pharmaceuticals and is always up on the latest info. He studies religiously and always has or can find the answer to any question I have about medicine. So, naturally, I turned to him for the real story.

"Is Swine flu more or less dangerous than the seasonal flu and should we get vaccinated?"

His response was both enlightening and hilarious.

"What you've heard is true: Pig flu is no more dangerous than the seasonal flu and, from what I've been reading, is actually less dangerous. The media, most likely in conjunction with the big pharmaceutical companies, have whipped the public into a frenzy. Fear equals more doses of vaccine being needed and more money in the pockets of big pharma.

Also, Tamiflu, prescribed to "treat" the flu, must be started within the first 48 hours of symptoms and, according to the package insert, shortens the duration of the flu by 24 hours. 24 HOURS? WHAT THE FUCK? Now, if the flu last between 5 and 14 days how is it possible to even determine that Tamiflu shortens the duration by 1 day??? With a range of 9 days in the duration of the flu, how could big pharma possibly make such a claim? How? How?? How??? I find such a claim spurious, at best. Plus, the cost is exorbitant and the side effects nasty. Go ahead, Google Tamiflu and read the product description. Another added "benefit" of Tamiflu is that it's supposed to alleviate flu symptoms. Well, so does Tylenol, cough medicine and tea with honey and lemon and they are far cheaper with comparatively mild side effects.

Okay, the flu sucks, no doubt, and it does claim lives every year. But, if people follow common sense precautions like coughing into your sleeve, washing your hands, avoid touching your nose, eyes, mouth or face until you've washed your hands, and staying home if you have flu-like symptoms, then there is no need for panic--do I sound like a public service announcement or what? Most people are sheep and will blindly swallow what the media pumps down their throats so they believe they MUST have both the seasonal and H1N1 vaccines or they're doomed.

Here's another fascinating tidbit: Both the current seasonal and H1N1 vaccines use what are called adjuvants. These allow the makers to accomplish the same thing using less of the required virus so their stock of available viruses can be used to make more vaccines which, again, means more money in their pockets. So, you might be asking, what's wrong with that? Sounds like a smart, prudent business practice.

Ever hear of Gulf War Syndrome? The adjuvant they used in the vaccines that were given to soldiers who developed GWS is called squalene--I'll let you look up squalene--and subsequent studies have all found a direct correlation between squalene and GWS. Not just one study, ALL OF THEM. Another adjuvant used is thimerisol which is derived from mercury and many people believe there is a direct link between thimerisol and autism. Both the seasonal and H1N1 vaccines being released onto the public contain squalene AND thimerisol. Now, squalene is used as a dietary supplement with no apparent negative effects. But, if you inject it versus ingesting it, all kinds of bad things can happen, as any research you do into squalene will show. Let's not forget, either, that the seasonal vaccine is a 'best guess" as to which strain will hit during the next flu season. Production for next year's flu vaccine will begin after the first of the year; otherwise, big pharma wouldn't have time to produce it. So, the strains of the flu virus in the vaccine are just a guess, it might give you mild flu-like symptoms all by itself, it contains adjuvants which themselves can make you seriously ill and, even if you get it, you can still get the flu. Sure, sign me up... (Baaaaa.)

Okay, that's plenty of info. Hope it helped. By the way, there was a seasonal vaccine clinic held here in M-bury (I forget where) a couple of weeks ago which made the news. It seems there was a frenzy of people all rushing to get the shot and they burned through a couple hundred doses in two and a half hours. A couple hundred doses usually lasts days or weeks. The news even mentioned people driving down from Canada just to get the shot. (Baaaa, baaaa) These people need to get a clue.

Peace,

X"


This has been a puclic service announcement from a Doomslayer.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cordoba - A Sample from Spain, Year Two.

It might seem odd to post something from book two when book one doesn't even have representation yet, but I wanted to have something up here besides more rambles and I just don't have time to compose something recent. Nor do I want to post anything else from book one. (The two Provence chapters are both high-larious, but I need to save a lot for the book right? I can't just publish everything to the blog.)

New rule : If you like something I've posted, you have to click an ad link. I think you'll like this one.

Cordoba 5/9/08

Today we are heading to Cordoba for the terrace festival. It is essentially a way for people to show off their pretty terraces and because Spaniards will invent any reason so that they can have a fiesta. There will be lots and lots of flowers, some gardens, maybe a koi pond or two. We’re very excited.

Okay, Wendy is very excited; me, not so much.

Today we’re taking the Ave and about that I am very excited. Atocha train station is only ten minutes from our house and no security checks. Soon, we’ll be smoothly zipping along at three hundred kilometers an hour. But first, some lunch.

At the opposite end of the turtles in the jungle portion (described in book one of Spanish travels) of the station is a great restaurant called “Samarkanda.” (Wikipedia tells me Samarkand is the second largest city of Uzbekistan and is as old as Rome.) Wendy has heard they have great steak tartar, something I have never tried but have always wanted to. We get a seat on the terrace overlooking the jungle and have some pate, a nice bottle of wine and some steak tartar. Just so you know steak tartar is very heavy. It is a confluence of flavors that are very rich combining garlic, Worcestershire sauce, onions, mustard, Tabasco, black pepper and more. In future visits we get one steak tartar and one other dish and share them so as not to be overwhelmed.

We are running late for our train when we finish and dash across the train station with mere minutes to go. But, there are no problems with boarding, no line, no strip searches, just hand them the tickets and get on. All this and no stomach lurching turbulence and no danger of falling out of the sky We have a nice view of the cafeteria car and soon people are walking past us with bad food and wine.

“We should have saved our appetite for the hot dogs and chips” Wendy says.

“I don’t think so.”

I get us a couple single serving bottles of wine and we look out the window and talk.

The difference between heading south out of the city instead of north is the fact that we are outside of the city in about five minutes and looking out over the green fields of Spain.

Another good thing about the Ave is that when riding it with friends, you can sit facing each other so the four of you can talk. A bad thing about the Ave is, if you’re not traveling with friends, you’re staring complete strangers in the face. Today we are staring at a matronly old woman traveling with what at first appears to be her granddaughter, braces and all. But on further inspection we find out that the granddaughter is actually just a tiny mature woman who appears to have had a hard city life. Her eyes are sunken into her thin head and she falls asleep just outside the city and leans her head against her mother and soon is drooling spit. The longer we travel the more her head falls to the side until it’s hanging at a grotesque broken angle. An hour into the trip her cell phone rings and she wakes up, chats on the phone a bit then talks with what I assume is her mother, while staring straight ahead.

At me.

I’m trying to read my book at this point but I can’t help glancing at her. Her eyes have dark black hollows under them, like a ghoul that has been awake all day waiting for the feast to start. I begin to fear what will happen if we go through a tunnel. Pretty soon I start to wonder how I can politely say “Can you go back to sleep, because you’re really starting to freak me out.”

The first things we do when we get to Cordoba is check into our hotel, get rid of our bags and check out the bed, which is awesome. I can put up with endless rows of flowers for this.

Now very happy, we head out into the streets to try and find some terraces. Since it’s mid- afternoon, siesta time, we rapidly find out that most of the terraces are closed, not to open up again until seven o’clock. We do find some nice balconies covered with flowers but nothing spectacular. Maybe if I was deeply into flowers I might enjoy them more, but, I’m not. If you’re into flowers though, this is the festival for you!

Since none of the terraces are open we do what everyone in Spain does at this point. We find a nice little bar, grab a couple glasses of wine, some food and talk.

As usual, we decide it’s a great idea to follow your dreams. Wendy was living in NY when the offer to move to Spain came up. Sure it was a lot of work and a lot of risk. It took a lot of work to box up and ship all her stuff over here, live in a hostel until she found an apartment, completely repair and paint the trashed apartment and turn it into the beautiful place it is today. Then the unimaginably hard task of starting up the business, cold call people and run a sales pitch. All of it very hard, but she can’t imagine still being in NY, still unhappy with her job but still in a comfort zone. Leaving that comfort zone brought her all her dreams.

At around seven we make our way back out into the streets and find some terraces open. Again, not that impressive… The problem with a lot of these homes is that they aren’t doing anything with the flowers. There is very little design. It is just lots and lots of flowers, usually petunias, sometimes fifty of them, hanging off the walls. Wendy and I have petunias. They don’t need much work. You plant them, water them, they get some sun and then they explode in growth and color.

We do find the city is beautiful though as we wander around and attempt to get lost. There is a lot of Muslim influence, like most of the cities to the south, with the usual almost worship of water. In the parks there are mile long concrete streams running through and everywhere we go there are lots of little pools of water and constructed little waterfalls.

We finally find a home with a terrace that is a level of quality above the rest. The entrance starts with two red and white painted archways. While there is still the similar theme of more is better, it’s really designed in a thoughtful way. There is a beautiful fountain in the middle of the room and then on the right hand side there is huge, leafy, bushy almost otherworldly plant. It appears to be nothing but palm branches coming out of the ground and ascending ten feet high in all directions. To the right of that in a little alcove are roses, cherubs, golden chalices and a shrine that contains a small statuette of Mary holding a dead Jesus in her arms. One entire wall is covered with intertwined roses. There are beautiful paintings along different walls surrounded by flowers. Looking up I see a massive bougainvillea that makes a complete roof of leaves and flowers. The floor of the place is river-tile, which is black flat stones arranged in a pattern and set in concrete to make a flower.

Now I’m impressed.

(Note: this is not a picture of that terrace. Sadly, those pictures turned out bad. This is just one terrace that also looked nice as an example.)
The next day we make our way inside the Mezquita.

The Mezquita was originally a roman temple. On that same spot was then built a Christian church. When the Muslims took over the area Emir Abd ar-Rahman converted the church into the second largest mosque in the world. In 1236, Cordoba was recaptured from the Muslim army by King Ferdinand and was again converted, this time building a massive Christian church inside the center of the mosque.

In his excellent book “Iberia” James Michener finds it fascinating. I find it nothing but blasphemous.

Like other massive cathedrals we have been in, the outside walls are ringed by small rooms with statues and murals of historic figures of Christian faith but none of them are as impressive as things we have seen elsewhere. Now, the Muslim faith doesn’t allow humans or animals to be depicted in its artwork, much less a mosque. Similarly, the one thousand arches that support the roof of the mosque are made up of the jasper, onyx, marble, and granite of the Roman temple that stood here before it.

In Toledo we saw a beautiful melding of the three religions into a common building. Here, the ruling powers have made no attempt to meld the religions, it is more of an "in-your-face" desecration attitude to the other religions.

The other thing that adds to my feeling of blasphemy and desecration is, oddly, there are five tour groups in the Mezquita, loudly being told what each corner represents, snapping pictures and noisily talking amongst themselves. There is none of the silent reverence that was observed in the other cathedrals we have been in. It’s like a mall of faiths in here there are so many people and so much noise. I follow Wendy around and we look at most of it, but honestly, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

We get some lunch and then head over to the birthplace, site of his death and museum of Julio Romero de Torres.
This is Wendy at the entrance.
His paintings are quite different than the ones we’ve seen in the Prado or even the Louvre. In one guide book its description begins with “Depending on how you feel about black velvet paintings…”

I guess I like them.

I’m a bit of a boorish art person. I like art that shows me something or moves me in some way, like a poem. Having just visited the Prado and seen painting after painting of Spanish royalty blankly staring at the artist while wearing nice clothes and not moving, this museum was a relief.

While utilizing a lot of very dark colors in his work, I didn’t find the paintings reminiscent of black velvet Elvis or Jesus at all.

Most of the paintings are of women with a scene from Cordoba or the imagination behind them. Usually the women are standing in a doorway or lying in front of a window and a scene plays out behind them.

“La Gracia” shows three nuns cradling and supporting the waist, head and feet of a half-naked woman. To the right of them a woman is crying. Behind them are a few buildings of Cordoba and the river Guadalquivir.

“El Pecado” which is “sin” in Spanish has a naked woman lying on a bed looking at herself in the mirror, her back to the viewer. The mirror is held by a crone dressed all in black including a head scarf. As if debating with her, two other old women are gesturing and talking to the woman holding the mirror. To the left of all of them is a middle-aged earthy woman holding out a golden apple cupped in both hands and behind them all, a window showing a typical Cordoba building. What does it mean? The vanity of youth? The three crones deciding a woman’s fate? A "Sleeping Beauty" reference?

His most famous painting is called “Naranjas y Limones” (oranges and lemons) which again shows a woman half-stripped to the waist but wearing a white skirt. She has black hair and soulful eyes. She is holding five oranges just beneath her breasts. Her left breast actually seems to be supported by the oranges. I don’t know if it is intentional or not, but on first glance, I thought he was making a joke and calling her breast a lemon, but on closer inspection I can see a lemon tree in the background.

His largest series of work takes up one entire wall and is called “Forma de Cordoba.” Consisting of “Cordoba Guerra”, “Cordoba Judea,” “Cordoba Barroca” “Codoba Torrera,” “Cordoba Christiana,” “Cordoba Romana” and “Cordoba Religioso.” All are lined up next to each other and of course, depict different aspects of Cordoba architecture and people. There is Cordoba in times of war, a Jewish woman, a bull, a Christian woman, the religious quarter, etc.

The flamenco paintings are the most complex and stunning. My favorite of these is “Conte Hondo” which depicts a number of scenes in one painting. In the center is a man kneeling over a woman he has clearly just killed. She is lying with her eyes open, a pool of blood spreading beneath her. Above her is a woman standing on an alter stripped to the waist and holding a guitar. Behind her is a large dog. Elsewhere there is a woman in a coffin, a man mourning next to it; a women with one breast exposed passionately kissing a man, to the left of them another pair, the man lying on the ground dead or drunk while a woman looks down at him as if watching over him. Framing all of this is the typical Cordoba scenery.

My favorite museum ever.

We spend the rest of the day wandering around looking at patios. And… as cool as they are, they’re not really something I’m into. Each one is slightly varied. And green. And filled with plants. Lots of plants. Big plants. Big, green plants. Eventually, with rare exception, they start to blur together for me.

For dinner we head to a mildly famous restaurant called “El Churrasco” which we think means a pork chop seasoned with Moroccan spices.

A cute little old man greets us and asks if we have a reservation. We tell him no and he says “no problem, we still have a few spaces left” and leads us upstairs to a quaint little room and a table.

What happens next is unique to my experiences in Spain.

The entire staff acts as if they live in a tip-driven business. Which they don’t.

Two glasses of sherry are poured for us before we even order anything. What Rioja is to the north and center of Spain, Sherry is to the south. In Madrid, you never see someone drinking sherry, but here, it is the drink of choice and we’ve seen people drinking it in bars all day.

For an appetizer we order a bowl of fish soup and the waiter tells us he will divide up one bowl for the two of us so we don’t have to share. What happens next is the best service I have ever received in any part of the world. We have five waiters attending to our every need. From clearing plates, to opening the wine, to refilling glasses of wine or water, to serving the food, there is always someone on hand for the slightest whim, cheerfully carried out. To top it off, the fish soup is phenomenal with a rich buttery taste, large pieces of fish and whole mussels, clams and shrimp.

We each finish off only half of our half bowl because we need to save room for our main course.

Completely atypical of Spain, three waiters in five minutes come over and ask us “Is there something wrong with the soup?” They ask us this in both Spanish and English and with true concern in their voice. It’s so wonderful! We quickly explain that no, the soup is fantastic; we are just saving room for the churrasco. We are feeling very dumb right about now. The food and service here is fantastic, and we are not able to take advantage of it because we’ve been eating cheap bad food all day.

The churrasco comes and despite the fact that their napkins show a huge chop and the guidebook we followed here told us it was a huge chop, we are not presented with a huge chop. Something we were both looking forward to… It is instead a pork loin. A delicious, perfectly seasoned roll of meat, but still, not the huge bone I was hoping to pick up and gnaw on.

Neither of us can finish it thanks to earlier excesses and again, the waiters are crushed.

The following morning the streets are packed with tourists. It is wall to wall humanity when we emerge from our hotel. We make our way through the crush to a foul little café that is the evil opposite of the place we ate last night. “Café Bar Mezquita” is the name, but that won’t help you find or avoid it. There are a dozen places with that name in Cordoba. Of course, we don’t know it’s a horrible place when we sit down. They have a nice little terrace in the sun and don’t look too busy.

They have “pan con tomate” (bread covered with a tomato-y juicy sauce, olive oil and salt) for Wendy and I get coffee and a donut. The problem, as usual, is both the typical Spanish service and the typical Spanish attitude. There are three women behind the counter and none of them is in the mood to serve anyone. They would much rather chat with each other, smoke while preparing food, avoid eye contact and act drunk and surly when asked for something.

In Spanish I ask : “Can I get a donut please?”

“EH? AN ELEPHANT? GRINGO WE DON’T SERVE ELEPHANT HERE!

“A Donut! It’s the same fucking word in English as it is in Spanish so don’t act like you don’t understand me.”

“A CLOWNHUT? WE DON’T SERVE CLOWNHUTS HERE!”

“A donut! For the love of God, I just want a donut!”

In the book, this entry goes on another ten pages, but you get the idea. :-)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Yeah, sorry about that whole Santorini thing.

(If you are an agent, possibly drawn here by my query letter, please look to the right and see the link "The Best Articles On This Site" and read any of those first. Thank you.)

I had hoped to have a Santorini post here for you today but the story is 1) not as polished as I thought it was and 2) is about the middle of the trip and doesn't make sense unless you have read the previous days. Hence, it will have to wait.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Golden Age Begins - NOW!

I can't even imagine having kids. I feel like I am always going, as I struggle to get this up before Wendy and I head to the gym in thirty minutes. If the Santorini thing isn't with it, it will be up tomorrow.

Okay... that is the fifth time I have tried to paste in my rambles and nothing is happening...

Okay, restarting didn't work...

Ah, pasting in "Edit HTML" mode worked. Bizarre.

I am predicting that we will never run out of oil. If we do, it will be long after I am gone. A recent article in “Time” magazine is talking about electric hybrid cars in development that will get 100, 250, 300 and even 367 miles to the gallon. And they aren’t coming soon, they are here. Cost is prohibitive at over forty-grand apiece, but the next wave is being built as I type this.

Every day a new wind farm is built or a permit for a new Nuclear power plant or a field of tide power pistons is being proposed. Solar power continues to get more advanced, thinner, more resilient, easier to install and most importantly – cheaper. All such technologies are more expensive than oil and coal, but initiatives and new technology will make them eventually cheaper. And that is a great thing.

We are at the dawn of a new age. A golden age I believe.

Even though the last three years with Wendy have had a lot of “Golden Age” in them, I feel that soon, she and I will enter an even better time.

The economic recovery is going a lot faster than people predicted (I only read and believe the positive articles), I’ve finished my travel memoir on Spain and travels throughout Europe and am approaching agents for representation, our house has just been redesigned into a castle, Wendy’s prospects seem to be looking way up, and hey look! Fall TV season has started. Yay!

Two things had us in stitches this week. We love Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, Desperate Housewives) and his new series in its second season: “Castle” about a mystery writer who follows a sexy detective around and helps on cases.

This week’s episode starts with Fillion clearly dressed up in his “Firefly Captain Mal Reynolds” outfit. Flashes of clothing, a trench coat being put on, a gun strapped to his waist and then he jumps out of his room into the living room completely dressed as Mal, gun drawn. His daughter is sitting on the couch.

“Oh, hey” he says, slightly embarrassed.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting ready for Halloween.”

“What are you supposed to be?”

He looks at her incredulously “A space cowboy.”

“One, there are no cows in space and two, didn’t you wear that like five years ago?”

“Yeah but I really liked it.”

We were dying. We re-watched the scene three times.

The other priceless scene this week was on “Top Chef” when the judges are presented with small bits of garlic puff that explode with spicy flavor in their mouth.

Padma Lakshmi says “It’s like a tiny prick on your tongue then it gets huge in your mouth.”

Another (female) judge says “That’s what usually happens.”

You can even watch the full exchange here.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/29/natalie-portman-padma-tal_n_338827.html

In other TV roundup, “Bones” has been fair, “Fringe” better than last season and Grey’s Anatomy pretty good. Not too annoying but not wonderful either. “Lie to me” continues to be fantastic while “Dollhouse” seems to be lacking a lot this season, a real surprise to me. “Dexter” has been great as usual and the last episode really grabbed us by the throat. We can’t wait to see what happens next.

For movies, we just watched “Up” which we both found touching, amazing and I think is Wendy’s new favorite animated film of all time. It is highly recommended and the montage at the beginning of the boy turning into a young, middle-aged, then old man is just beautiful and heart wrenching.

In books I have finally finished the “Liveship” series and found it amazing. After one and a half books I started handing them out as gifts to my family who have a ton of birthdays this time of year. The third book is a bit harsher from the first two and I hope it won’t upset one of the people I gave it to who usually reads lighter fare. Robin Hobb continues to beat the crap out of her characters and repeats the same conversation too many times,

Sea Serpent “We are losing our memories, what are we going to do?”
Other Sea Serpent “ I don’t know, we must find one who remembers.”
Repeat exact same concern twenty pages later.

But her characterization and the world she builds is second to none. The series is just a fascinating, sometimes painful, always interesting page turner. I loved it. The books are enormous and took me weeks to finish.

October has been very busy for us but November looks like it might slow down a little. Who knows, I find every day busy unless I’m really being lazy. Wendy has been going all out on the Halloween decorating and planning a party for this (last as I finally post this) Saturday and working on our costumes and decorating the apartment and making sure we have enough food and a new outdoor day bed for people to sit on the terrace, etc. I wrote a proposal for my book yesterday and she found the daybed so I went and helped her carry that home seven blocks and then went back to work. When I finished the proposal I was working on a couple hours later we carved pumpkins then went out shopping for Halloween candy that Stefan’s son specifically asked for, a new printer cartridge, plastic cups, dropped off something at the dry cleaners and one other stop I can’t remember. It was about two or three miles of walking considering we don’t have a car or scooter here. We came home and collapsed for a bit then did some more decorating, watched “Scream 3” and then went to bed.

This morning the electrician is here putting in a new dimmer switch, I’m answering email and trying to do a new blog post. Then we’re off to the new gym we joined for a workout before the 1:00 lunch rush, then home to try on costumes and make sure we’re all set for tonight’s (Saturday) Halloween party at the American Embassy, then some finishing touches on the decorations and possible rearranging of the living room because Wendy wants to make sure we’re prepared for the party to be outside on the terrace but it might be too cold and have to be moved inside.

So far, of the agents I have approached, I have too many rejections to count but have had two requests for chapters to read and one request for a proposal. So, I’m getting there.

Happy Halloween everyone!

I hope your Halloween is going to be as amazing as I know mine will be. (And it was.)

I proposed to Wendy on Halloween and she said yes!

Pictures of the apartment and costumes coming next week...er... now.

Sorry for the lack of updates and most of them being status reports, but all my energy these days are going into researching and approaching agents. I plan on posting more about our trip to Santorini in the coming weeks in hopes of more amusing and interesting things to read here.


Before the food is laid out and the guests arrive.




Spooky graveyard scene, spooky bats and spooky...flowers in little bowls?








Wendy putting the finishing touches on the kitchen. Arg! Look out for the spider behind you milady!






Happy and scary ghosts. One! Two! Two kinds of ghosts!








Everyone who arrived early enough (except JB who was 1) not in costume and 2) very kindly offered to take the picture.)

There are a LOT more pictures on Facebook that others have taken including one of me on my knees after a little speech I made then proposed. I don't take very good pictures so most of mine came out like crap. Hope you get the idea and if you join Facebook you can see a lot more.


(P.S Click some links ya bastards, I got a wife to support now!)