Tuesday, May 4, 2010

There's a reason I've always hated Ewoks.

The last update ended with me telling you I was going out to pimp my book.

I showered and put on some strong sun block since the weather in Madrid is clear, sunny, and hot. I took my huge ass sign and some book sample chapters up to the plaza in front of the palace and stood there, holding my sign and a chapter in my hand, ready to offer it to anyone who showed the slightest interest. Ninety minutes later the only people who talked to me were two attractive policewomen who grilled me on what I was doing. I explained it was a chapter of my new book that I was trying to promote and that it was free.

“So, you’re not selling anything?”
“No, totalmente gratis.”
“And what is this and, this?”
“That’s my email address and my website.”
“Okay, thank you, good luck.”
“Buen dia.”

(There are two words for “free” in Spanish. One means unoccupied or with no restrictions, the other means there is no cost for it. If someone asks if they can take a chair from your table and you are not using it, you reply with ‘Si, es libre.” If you are handing out chapters of a book for no cost, it is ‘gratis.’ When I am at the gym it is important to ask if a machine is free, as in, not being used, as opposed to asking if there is a charge to use it, which gets you nothing but a strange look.)

At the ninety minute mark, having passed out exactly zero copies I headed home. I am quite sure there is a better use of my time, like making the corrections to my next book, Secret Force, that Jeopardy Champion Dave Meddish has just sent to me. Or even clipping my fingernails or rearranging my sock drawer. Luckily I have a girlfriend who is a born saleswoman. She could sell sand to a desert nomad.

“Hey, you never know when you might need some sand! Sure, you’ve got lots of sand now, but what if that goes away? As a desert nomad, you’ll have no desert! What will you do then? Economy’s not doing so well, I don’t think they’re hiring at Kinko’s or even Starbucks… You have to think of these things man, you have to plan for your future!
“I will take ten acres of sand.”
“Smart man. Smart man. Sign here.”

She offers to help me and we will be going out together next time.

I made her up a much better red deck than the one I use to teach people and she destroyed me in Magic a bunch of times and then we sat down to watch some episodes of “The Biggest Loser” since we have become addicted to it. Lorelei raves about it but we didn’t think we would like it.

As it turns out, it is very well done, one of the best competition shows we have ever seen with unexpected twists, rewards, challenges and deep delving into the personalities of the contestants and what made them get fat. The psychology of the show is amazing.

One of the trainers is relentlessly pushing one of the contestants working out and starts asking her – “Why are you fat?”
“Because I eat too much.”
“No. Why are you fat?”
“Because I don’t exercise enough.”
No! Why are you fat?!”
“To protect myself!!!”
“Protect yourself from what?”
“People keep leaving me. And if I’m fat then I can say they left me because I was fat not, because of who I am.” And collapses in tears and the trainer hugs her.

Moments like that stun me. And they are frequent.

The other thing is they have put a lot of thought into the challenges and the way they do weigh-ins and everything. “Whoever wins this challenge gets letters from home!”

Or, it is the night before weigh-ins. The two couples who have lost the least amount of weight can be voted off the show by the other contestants. The show offers everyone time alone in the temptation room, a place filled with donuts, fried chicken, candy bars, etc. This season (number five) is couples. Some are married. Two are just best friends. Two others are former football teammates. One team is a mother and daughter, another a mother and son. One at a time, they get to go into the temptation room.

The person who consumes the most calories gets five thousand dollars.

And weigh-ins are tomorrow.

We pack and get ready for the morning flight. We fly into San Sebastian on Friday afternoon with just enough time to drop off bags at the Hotel Niza and make our two o’clock reservation at Arzak. We are very excited. Budding foodies, the last time we were in San Sebastian we ate at Akelarre and it was one of the best meals of our life. Basque country has more concentrated Michelin stars than any other area in the world. The meal at Akelarre was heaven. It was like nothing else we have ever eaten before or since. Arzak is even more famous and we have seen his restaurant on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” and “On the Road Again: Spain” with Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow. We are both expecting an experience similar, possibly even more incredible, than Akelarre.

What we received was something quite different. The restaurant was very nice and quiet, the staff well trained and friendly upon greeting us. And then things got weird. Wendy has already described it on Facebook so I’m saving myself some work and putting her words here.

“Hmm... well, first of all, the tasting menu was disappointing. Compared to Akelarre, where every dish was a delight, this was not! And I REALLY wanted to love Arzak more (despite what www.Chowhound.com says!) But, the awfulness was with the first course-it was four bites of grilled apple & foie-I took a bite and it just wasn't my taste. I took one more to be sure and then decided to just leave the other two bites on my plate. Jamie had only taken one bite of his, didn't like it either, and, as he has said multiple times-why eat something you don't like? Just to impress the waiter? So I decided not to eat anymore. After all, we had at least five more courses coming. I did not complain, I did not send it back but the waiter came over and looked horrified. I simply said it was wonderful, I was sure, but not to my own personal taste and that I wanted to save room for all the rest.I smiled, thinking that this would be the end.

No. He called over the hostess, who also looked horrified. I explained again, blaming my own lack of good taste, and said we had so much more food coming. She grilled me on exactly what was wrong with the dish. Again, I tried to articulate that foie prepared that way was just not to my taste-I never order it, but thought I would try it as it came with the tasting menu (with no alternative). I blamed myself again and tried to smile it away. She insisted on replacing the dish with another. While I really felt made to feel bad at this point, the lobster dish she brought me was so good, I thought, maybe she was right. Instead of remembering the foie dish she didn't like, the customer will remember the lobster dish she did. And, how well she was cared for.

That's what I thought. I spent the next five courses practically licking my plate, and making a show of it too. I thought we were good.

Then, as he always does, Juan Mari Arzak came around to visit all the tables. I was all psyched to meet this famous Ewok like chef who seems so friendly from everything I have seen. I was all prepared to say how much we liked everything, how much we loved San Sebastian, etc. Unlike the table next to us, I was NOT going to mention that we were there solely because of Mario Batali & Gweneth Paltrow showing it on their program. But, as he got closer, I saw the hostess talking in his ear, and, could hear her saying "this is the one, this is the one that didn't like the foie!" Horroroso! Now I really felt awful. Again, I said, "it's just my taste, I am clearly wrong-everything else was so wonderful." He mumbled something dismissive, and told me I was very pretty. I babbled that it was a pleasure meeting him, and he said it was all his. When he came out again later and I raved about the basil ice cream, he barely acknowledged me.

So, that was my experience. Really disappointing-from several dishes being unpleasant to being made to feel like an idiot. But Akelarre, THAT was a delight and worth every penny!”

I will agree that it felt really uncomfortable for the hostess to come over and tell the chef we didn’t like his foie dish. How unprofessional and unnecessary! From that point on the meal became an eating competition me. I was going to make sure everything on both our plates was eaten whether I liked it or not, regardless of how full I was, so we wouldn’t have a repeat of the situation.

Do they think everyone is going to love everything on the TASTING menu? That doesn’t even make sense.

Their progression of food was weird as well. We had three dishes in a row that tasted heavily of animal fat. Now, we love fat, but by the time the third dish came, we were pretty sick of the taste. Then they served us three desert courses in a row! Two of them were part of the tasting menu and then when they brought the check, they brought a huge plate of chocolates as well!

You know what? One of those courses would have been enough. Here, let me eat all this chocolate, so you, the Michelin star chef who has been on TV multiple times can feel good about yourself.

And unlike Akelarre, the food wasn’t even that good. I’ve had a better piece of steak at a dozen places. Hell, we had a better cooked piece of steak at a bar in San Sebastian the next day!

Bitter? Yeah I am. You would be too if you were expecting something similar to Akelarre and got embarrassed and served poor food. Anyway, let’s move on to the good stuff -

As I type this, it is Saturday morning and we are in San Sebastian, a place where we plan to retire. Like, tomorrow. It is our second trip here and it is amazing. Our room has a view of the ocean and this morning it is teeming with kayaks and 8 man rowing crews. Kids, three to a team, are pulling blue squares and long poles with them up the beach. There must be a race today. The beach is two kilometers long and is a huge half circle. There is an island in the center of the bay, making this one of the most beautiful views of the ocean we have ever seen. It is drizzling rain and is slightly cold out, but we don’t mind.

We got up this morning and went across the street to the Café de la Concha and had coffee and pinxos. I have been looking forward to this moment since the last time we were here. The café has a wonderful scenic view and excellent food. We start off with a small piece of bread topped with jamon, a quails egg, and 5-8 little dried potato fries sprinkled on. It is my favorite breakfast in the entire world and is a whole two bites. We sit for a while then I get myself another and two more coffees for us. Ten minutes later Wendy decides she would like another as well, and I get that and a small piece of bread with surimi (that fake crabmeat stuff made out of Pollock) mixed with mayo on top. It is delicious and I have Wendy taste its ocean-y goodness.

We sit and read the news and check email on our iPhones so Wendy can digest before her run.

Twenty minutes later, I am here, back in the room, writing, looking out at the beach, the runners, the swimmers, the dogs chasing balls on the beach. Wendy has gone for a run and I should be doing push-ups since they don’t have a gm here. I should be writing too, so I guess I’ll just keep doing that.

Wendy explained to me that people who live in San Sebastian see the beach and ocean as their second living room, and it shows. Despite the rain and the cold weather (12 degrees Celsius / 53 degrees Fahrenheit) there are people in bathing suits walking along the beach and even swimming. I handle cold very well, but to be comfortable today, I am wearing jeans, a heavy shirt and a light jacket. There is a woman in a bikini walking towards the ocean and without hesitation dives in.

I’m not in Russia! This is Spain! Sure, it’s the north of Spain but it’s still Spain! In Madrid they pull out their puffy winter coats when it dips below seventy degrees.

Outside my window it turns out the triangles and poles the kids were dragging were for soccer goals. The beach has been turned into ten soccer fields, lines drawn in the sand and goals at each end of ten fields. Young kids from all over the region in different uniforms are competing. The bay is still filled with kayaks and crews and sailboats.

Life is good.

Everything about San Sebastian is amazing. Café de la Conche is above the beach. It is not across the street from the beach, but on the beach, looking out over the ocean. There is a two mile walkway above the beach and at high tide the waves crash against the walls of the city and you can look down on them as if from a very carefully constructed cliff. The food in the pintxo bars is amazing, with rare steak on bread, perfectly cooked shrimp on bread, wooden skewers of pork and chicken and beef.

The beach itself is a wonder because it is so flat. This has the effect of high tide coming in rapidly and low tide leaving rapidly. At high tide, the waves lap against the walls. At low tide there is a hundred yards of beach before you get to the water. It’s hard to imagine until you see it, but it is special. For every inch the water drops at low tide, six more feet of beach is revealed because it is so flat. At high tide you can walk fifty yards into the water before you need to swim.

We have three wonderful days of rest and relaxation, playing Magic, eating pintxos, reading, walking along the beach and exploring. On the third and coldest, windiest, rainiest day I went for a swim while Wendy went for her run.

Life is great.


  1. Yea an Ewok telling me I am pretty would be enough to make me want to go medieval on something.

  2. I have just googled the area using the street map. Looks like a wonderful place. As always, very nicely described. Enjoy!!

  3. Did I miss something. Jamie your not running?

  4. At the moment, I am not running, I am working out with free weights at a gym while Wendy runs on the treadmill.