a wandering woman writes

Sunday, August 28, 2005


I have been having the strangest sensation walking through Salamanca lately.

I seem to have suddenly found myself living in an NPR radio feature.

You know the radio stories I mean? Where they carry you through a ciy neighborhood or a factory floor or the backstage of a theatre or a busy restaurant kitchen or..somewhere and this being radio, they are forced to paint the picture purely with sound? And it works?

You hear the footsteps of the reporter, sounds build as he travels toward a car or a construction site or a group of children and fade as he continues on past them...and you feel yourself IN the story, in that place, much more than when you simply watch a video.

Well, either I've gotten tired of looking at Salamanca or my sweet little town has become aurally interesting. Or maybe I've just gotten better at listening.

I first noticed how loud my Salamanca soundtrack had become - and suspected that there just had to be an NPR microphone involved - on my way to work one morning this week. I suddenly realized that I was hearing nothing but my own footsteps echoing against sandstone walls. My own very loud footsteps.

As I climbed up toward the Old Cathedral, I passed 2 construction workers singing their hearts out, later the Cathedral bells clanged out 9 o'clock, 2 Salmantinos had a hell of a loud laugh at the kiosk at the end of La Rua and a little boy happily hummed his way to school, clinging to his dad's hand and scuffing his shoes to the beat of his walking tune.

Salamanca's Sunday morning soundtracks are far and above my favorites. There are so few people out when I go out to buy my Sunday paper - aside from tourists - that my soundtrack dramatically drifts in and out, from pure Sunday silence to the frenetic clicking of tourists' cameras and the shrill call of the woman who sells postcards by the Casa de las Conchas.

Today I passed from the silent canyon of Calle Tentenecio to a rapidly changing tour guide soundtrack first in French, then Portuguese, then Spanish. Later the song of my favorite roving lottery vendor faded in and out - an endlessly repeated Gregorian chant you could easily mistake for a part of the Catholic mass. Llevo loteria, los que tocan...llevo loteria los que tocan.. (I secretly always expect him to wack himself upside the head with a stone tablet like the monks at the beginning of Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the end of every verse: ...los que tocan.. Whack! but that's a blog entry for another day.)

As I wended my way home, the cackling French tourists faded and a blue-clad nun opened the door of a convent I'd never noticed before and - mmuah! mmuah!- enthusiastically kissed the woman she found there. Finally the song of a lone guitarist singing by the old cathedral took over (something about Llorar llorar llorar! No tengo trono ni reino......) until I returned to silence on the final descent toward home.

Next week instead of the camera,which I've learned to drag along on Sunday mornings, just in case, I'm thinking about packing the digital recorder. Live from Salamanca, it's Sunday morning....


Friday, August 26, 2005

This and That

Late for work, so 2 quick thisses and a that:

Yesterday a quick stop to check my Yahoo mail reminded me of yet another reason I love living - this one is particularly about working - in Europe. Vacation!!! And permission to take it! OK, the capitalist in me doesn't know how small businesses do it, I can't imagine the overhead although salaries are lower, I suppose....but it does make you ask that thoroughly unAmerican question - Why are we working again?

A bit of the article:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Americans returning to work from summer vacation ought to feel refreshed, but probably not as refreshed as colleagues in Europe, where minimum paid leave beats that for U.S. workers with even 25 years of service.

A report from the Economic Policy Institute on Wednesday noted that Americans with a quarter century of employment receive just 19.2 days of annual paid leave on average versus 20 days or more in most European countries.

"Vacation is an important part of work -- a time to get away from the demands of a job, to enjoy family, and to rejuvenate. President Bush's extended vacation at his ranch in Texas reflects this need," said EPI.

Bush has been enjoying a five week break on his ranch in Crawford -- a stay away from the office that is positively French in length, where legal minimum annual leave is 25 days.

There is no legal minimum paid leave in the United States, although many firms grant some vacation time. EPI, citing data from the U.S. National Compensation Survey, found the average number of paid vacation days to be 8.9 after one year or work, 11 after three years and 16.2 after 10 years.

Could you spell that please?

Has anyone found that learning a second language completely destroys their ability to spell in the first? Or is that only when the new language is as luxuriously phonetic as Spanish? I can't believe what has become of my 5th grade Spelling Bee champ self. People regularly send me things to proofread. Note to all of you: you may want to reconsider that.

Tenedor Tension

And I have been wondering this for 4 years so now I will ask all of you:

So since the States was a British colony, I'll assume we use to eat like Europeans, fork in the left hand, knife in the right, scooping away with both utensils simultaneously.

So who decided it was time to change and when?

Because I'm basically retrained, and actually I think the fork in the left technique works better, most of the time. (Which again makes me ask why we felt compelled to change it.)

Then somebody brings me a chopped up salad, or a bowl of rice....and I give in to comfort. Fork in the right.

When you're hungry you'll do what it takes - even shout "North American!" through your table manners, I guess.


Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Piano Man 2

OK, the Piano Man who so intrigued me was a fake.

Although I'm not sure which is more heart-wrenching, the original story or the new one.

Weird thing, though. I found out he'd spoken up and gone home on my way home from work, and when I put my work bag down at home....I gave in to a mad compulsion to play the piano. Tangos, over an hour. Which I never do during the week.

So I'm not sure what to make of my having been so affected by his story, except maybe that I'm still just a pie-eyed American optimist who'll give anybody the benefit of the doubt, which suits me just fine.

After all, he got me thinking back in May, and last night he got me playing the piano before dinner (maybe just to prove I still could!).

Speaking of Piano Man, this long-ago Billy Joel freak (yours truly, I even wore men's ties in high school, more to emulate him than Annie Hall, sorry, pictures sadly NOT available) heard Piano Man - the Spanish version - during the workday serenade last week. It's truly wild, and says something about our cultures I haven't quite deciphered yet. Ana Belén sings it, El Hombre del Piano, and it's dramatic and emotional and tear-inspiring...like any good Spanish ballad. Piano man!


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Home Sweet Skyline

Time for good news from home, which I'm ashamed to say I've picked up late. (You'd think I was living in Spain or something.)

I read in the IHT that sweet home Chicago is getting a new star skyscraper smack dab in the middle of the world's most spectacular skyline. (Don't argue, I have an Irish-American temper. Plus I'm right.)

At 2000 feet, it'll be the tallest in the US, beating the (yet-to-be built) Freedom Tower at Ground Zero in NY, at a very patriotic 1776 feet, which really doesn't interest me as much as the nifty sleek design by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Here's the IHT article and look! it already made the Chicago Architecture Guide, modified skyline image and all.

It's a spindly, twisting glass needle of a building. And I like the inspiration; it suits an overgrown, swampy trading post. Calatrava told the Sun-Times:

"I know that Chicago is an Indian name, and I can imagine in the oldest time the Native Americans arriving at the lake and making a fire, with a tiny column of smoke going up in the air. With this simple gesture of turning one floor a little past another, you achieve this form." -Santiago Calatrava, Chicago Sun-Times, July 26, 2005.

Check out my 2 favorite Chicago buildings here and here. Before moving to Salamanca (ok, also a fabulous skyline) I lived in the ugly (taller) monstrosity behind the Wrigley (which, yes, has a tower modeled after La Giralda in Sevilla, photo at the top of this post) in the first link.

What started all this skyline nostalgia? A-9 Maps. I came back from my daily pincho the other day to find my coworker touring Chicago. I joined him and we virtually walked home from my old job on Jackson to that highrise behind the Wrigley. Beats google maps, if you ask me. You can get a street level view of a pretty good collection of cities. Just in case anybody else is feeling city nostalgia. Or virtual wanderlust!


Monday, August 22, 2005

Sorry, Spain's closed.

OK, I'm ready for Spain to reopen now.

For those of you who haven't had the pleasure to experience it firsthand, Spain closes for August. No, I mean Spain. The country.

August. All of it. July and August, in some places. I've never seen anything like it. Closed. Everybody. Gone fishing. The king. The prime minister. The man who runs my favorite frutería. At least half of my coworkers (including absolutely all of those with whom I desperately need to talk if I want to move ahead in my own work.)

And I for one, am now more than ready for the Grand Reopening.

Some day I plan to take the whole month off, and join them, just to see what it's like to go on vacation with an entire nation, but since I'm heartlessly limited to 2 weeks at a time right now, and choose not to take them in August...I'm ready for my playmates to come back from their pueblos (no fair!! mine's too far away!!), my dry cleaner to save me from the 3 outfits I'm wearing threadbare, and my favorite person to bounce work ideas off to get back to bouncing.

Take my Spanish teacher, for example. First she changed my classes to Fridays for July and August so she could stay in her pueblo Sunday through Thursday. (Ok, it's La Alberca, I'd go too.) Then when I sent her an SMS one Friday after 2 or 3 cancellations, just to check if I should show up for class that day, I received this reply:

-Ya es veranito. He suspendido las clases.
-It's summer. I have suspended the classes.

To which I responded like a good American corporate vacation-avoider turned expat:

-Til when?

A minute later, the one-word response:


God help my grammar.


Sunday, August 21, 2005

Mirror view

I got a nice mirror view of a Spaniard wandering through the Western US, today, thanks to Alex who sent me the link to Mestre Tites in my comments box. If you can read Spanish, it's thoroughly entertaining and really well written.

A few highlights:

He goes clothes shopping at Macy's in San Francisco, where he is overjoyed by the abundance of parking at the shopping mall, and discovers that he is a size "small" in the US, where European visitors are made small "just by contrast."

Later he tries to find public transportation in LA, center of the I Am What I Drive culture. (I can say that, I lived there. And I had a really nice car.

Taking public in LA is an appropriately quixotic quest for a Spaniard wandering through Southern California, I think.

I cringed as he watched Maury Povitch (now that's embarrassing) and visited Las Vegas, deciding, as he found himself both attracted to and turned off by the Vegas fake perfect world (Venice with clean canals, he asks?), that millions of Americans spend the best weekend of their lives there. Maybe, maybe, ok you're right, but millions don't, I have to add, millions don't!

He eats at Denny's. And seems to like it!! A very down to earth visitor, this Spaniard. He hears Latinos talk about him in Spanish, thinking he's "American" and doesn't understand. (Careful, there, mestre, most of the Latinos I know think of themselves as American, too -- just American and Latino.) And he predicts that Spanish will some day be an official language in the US. Here I hope he's wrong. The US has no official language, despite some current right-wing efforts to give English the official nod before Spanish gets too deeply entrenched. I hope we'll never have an official language, and I hope that more fervently every day as I read the Spanish papers and visit language-divided Belgium and see Europeans use languages as weapons. That's one vice I happily haven't seen in the US yet, aside from the current English-Only campaign which I don't think has much popular support. In the bakeries of Fox Point in RI or Fall River in Massachusetts, close to where I grew up, the official language is Portuguese. And in the delicatessens in neighboring Federal Hill it's Italian. You'll hear nothing but Spanish in some Chicago neighborhoods now, but you'll still hear just as much Chinese in Chinatown and Polish, well, everywhere. And I like it that way.

My favorite of his US entries is Como en las Peliculas - Just Like in the Movies. At the risk of making this a really long post, here's a bit of it:

When you arrive in the States for the first time, the phrase that most comes to mind is "just like in the movies". We have so been nursed on the culture of this country that everything is familiar to us.......What strikes you as strange is not seeing a single murder! But everything is familiar - even the police when you see them patrolling on the highways.

In one of those cafeterias (diners)...Pulp Fiction or American Grafitti pops into your mind. You go shopping at Walmart and look for the rifle and gun section, to make yourself believe that they really can buy guns at the superstore. You sleep in a hotel (in fact, you look for the chance to sleep in one) and you are secretly disappointed that the police don't bust through the door and throw you to the floor looking for some delinquent....

Hysterical. I remember a similar feeling when I spent weeks looking forward to my first train trip home from grad school. I had never travelled by train but I had spent most of my waking childhood hours reading Agathie Christie novels. What a disappointment. Not a drop of blood or arsenic, very few people and an extremely rude porter.

His movies entry reminded me of one of my first nights out here in Salamanca, when I saw a Woody Allen movie (Melinda and Melinda) with 3 or 4 couples, all Spanish. I spent the entire pincho crawl after the movie fielding questions. No, all Americans do not hate Woody Allen movies, (only those that spend the best weekend of their lives in Vegas :-)) and no, not all Americans live in luxury trilevel Manhatten lofts, see a shrink twice a week, or take taxicabs everywhere they go.

I'm hoping in the end that mestre will come to the same conclusion that I did after my murderless train trip. You can't recapture fiction. There's always something they didn't tell you.

I also hope he heads back to the US soon - and samples a few more states.

Labels: ,

Friday, August 19, 2005

My Castilla for a cosmo....

I distributed Belgian chocolates today, like a well-educated Spanish traveller. Of course, it wasn't all about my good manners: There are certain creatures with whom I just cannot spend a night alone. A box of Belgian chocolates is one of them.

Which got me thinking.

I really am loving this "bring everybody back a treat from your travels" deal. Really I am. Highly civilized.

What I'm NOT liking is the "tell everybody the tales of the wonderful things you ate and drank THERE (wherever that may be) that you'll know they'll NEVER find HERE."

Like Cosmos.

To quote a T-shirt:
My colleague Carmen went to New York and all I got was a detailed description of icy cold cosmos.

Cosmos! Co-co-co cosmos........COSMOS, I tell you! Hadn't thought about the word in a year and a half, beer, wine and small town Spain-loving girl that I am. But once the word crossed her lips...I could feel the cold glass...I was biting into the lemon peel... Oh! what I would give for an icy cold cosmopolitan.

And I here I thought I didn't miss anything. Til she started in on the bagels and lox in NY..and the Sunday afternoon Dim Sum in Chinatown..and the street dog with everything....and the cosmopolitan.

It's time to introduce my Salmantino cohorts to cosmopolitans and dirty martinis. Of course, there's plenty of Belgian beer for those who prefer it.

Tomorrow's Calle Toro shopping list:
1. Martini shaker and glasses at La Oca
2. Vodka
3. Cranberry juice. Yeh, right. (Actually, an already eager invitee brought me in a bag of frozen mixed berries today, hoping I might be able to work with those. I didn't have the heart to tell her the search must go on.)

And a stop at Hiperjardín to replace the petrified forest that was once my garden. Terraza party!

Anybody know if I can buy triple sec in a small town in Spain?


Thursday, August 18, 2005

Coming Home

Yours truly in Antwerp. I'm the one behind the camera - and the De Koninck.

My garden is dead.

Long live my garden.

Five days, and it looks like Joshua Tree out there. Except for the geraniums, which I've decided are either some strange genetically modified species developed in the Mojave, or visiting aliens disguised as geraniums.

OK, I brought my Belgian hostess a copy of Eduardo Mendoza's Sin Noticias de Gurb and now I'm seeing aliens everywhere. But I really do suspect my geraniums.

The best part of coming home to Spain after 5 days in Belgium:

The sun.

And hearing Spanish all around me. I never notice myself eavesdropping, but, man, it's annoying not to understand conversations (those that supposedly include me and those that do not.)

The worst part of coming home?

The sun.

My garden's dead, after all, and I can't find anywhere cool enough to store the chocolates a very generous Belgian chocolate-box salesman sent me home with. Another new friend-of-a Belgian-friend packed me up 15 different Belgian beers, since my list of the 8 I'd already test-driven struck him as insufficient. Apparently I have 400 and some-odd to go. I highly recommend Belgium, but make sure you hook up with the natives; in my experience they shower you with gifts.

And my favorite ok-the-world-just-has-no-idea-who-we-are-although-I-am-the-first-to-admit-our-myriad-flaws American line of the weekend? During a pre-party cooking jam, my favorite part of any party:

Wow, you really know your way around a kitchen.

Especially for an American.

And the reply to my bewildered - For an American??

Well, since you all don't really cook.
You know, other than hamburgers.

Labels: , ,

Friday, August 12, 2005

Gone Wandering

I'm off to Belgium for a few days (never been!) to drink good beer, eat good chocolate, catch a jazz fest and visit a friend with whom I studied Spanish in Madrid a few years ago. And I'm about to miss my bus! Next entry, barring unexpected internet time while travelling: Thursday the 18th.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Learning to fly

It's taken me an unusually long time to walk home every day this week.

The baby storks are in flight training. Every afternoon this week as I've passed by the Old Cathedral I've been met by a squadron of fearless storklets, learning to fly.

And I just have to sit down and watch them. I've been fascinated by storks since I got here, I think simply because they are truly beautiful birds, but also because they so remind me of sailing. They're first class wind-surfers. And when they go to land, they lower their feet, create drag, move to the oddest looking seated position and then come in for a landing. In fact, it was watching the storks carry construction materials up to their nests from the river in spring, day after day after day, that inspired me to start this blog. I just felt the urge to tell somebody!

Well, the Salamanca stork class of 2005 is out every tarde, diving off the Old Cathedral, then trying out their moves:

OK, so if I put my legs down like this, I wonder what happens....whoaaaa!!, ok I WON'T do that again......and if move this wing over here...oh, yeh now that's cool.

You get the idea.

I love a lot of things about Spain. A lot of the things I was looking to learn are here to be learned - but oh, I do especially love living close to Salamanca's storks.


Monday, August 08, 2005

That explains it

American? That explains it!! You want to destroy everything, just like Señor Bush.

Quote from the waterheater repairman who, on arriving to figure out why I had been living without hot water for a month, discovered that I was opening the tap ALL the way. Hard.

Open this tap halfway and you can have all the hot water you want, as it turns out. Something about pressure.

I waited a month of cold showers for that advice.

But I did like the Bush quote.


And his closing comment, delivered with a huge, friendly grin:

Anything else in the apartment you need me to explain??

I got the feeling he desperately wanted to give me a class in how not to mistreat Spanish appliances.


Catchy Spanish saying of the day:

Se me ha ido el santo al cielo.

Literally, something like: The saint has gone to heaven on me.

And it means? You've forgotten something. That great idea or brilliant thought you had on the tip of your tongue just a second ago is now nowhere to be found.

I've grown quite fond of it, although in the annoying way I have of mixing up my languages, I keep catching myself thinking "dang it, my saint took off" in English.

Doesn't quite carry the same punch.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Cáceres and Trujillo


A few photos of Cáceres and Trujillo, in Extremadura. The bus trip reminded of the drive through western Nebraska on a secondary road north of the interstate when I moved from LA to Chicago. Lots of arid nothingness.... and then a little town. More arid nothingness and then....You get the idea. And people - open, salt of the earth, happy-to-talk-up-a-stranger people, from entrepreneurial (and seemingly octagenerian) nuns selling overpriced souvenir photo books and underpriced homemade sweets - while giving 1 euro tours of their 13th century palace to anyone bold enough to pull the mysterious cord attached to the tiny "pull this cord" note in the palace's patio - to the Plaza Mayor waiter thrilled to spend his busy Saturday night doting on a woman eating alone, and challenging himself to make each plato he picks out for her better than the plato before (and he succeeded!)

Both towns have amazingly preserved medieval quarters, with intact city walls and perfectly conserved renaissance palace neighborhoods. Both are filled with relics of the conquerors who passed through here - Romans, Visigoths and centuries and centuries of Moors, all before the Catholic nobles of Leon finally reconquered the city (for the last time) in the 13th century and Queen Isabel, who has always been on my list of women with whom I'd like to have a cup of coffee, showed up with more palace-building Castillians. But I also wandered through the houses of the conquerors who set off from here - the Extremaduran conquistadores who conquered Mexico, discovered the Pacific, the Mississippi and the Amazon, and, led by Franscisco Pizarro, an illegimate Trujillo boy made good, toppled the Inca Empire. And the palaces of 2 expats - princesses who married the Spaniards who had killed their fathers and followed them here to Extremadura. I'm never sure how much of my wide-eyed awe at Spain's history is about being American - and growing up thrilled to see an "ancient" 17th century building - but it's always wide-eyed awe, and I always pick up larger-than-life, heartbreaking legends on the local Spanish walking tours.

View of Trujillo's old quarter from the castle

Watching the tourist horsecart pass, Trujillo

Sharpening knives in Trujillo's Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor, Trujillo


Saturday, August 06, 2005

Caged bird singing..and updates

This is a common site in Spain; I snapped this little fellow out for fresh air in Cáceres. I always get a kick out of the canaries and parakeets hanging on pegs outside, but I wonder: Is he happy to be out here getting fresh air, soaking in Spanish sun and seeing what the world looks like outside his cage? Or is it torture? Seeing everything you can't have? Watching all those wild cousin birds soar by...showing off with fancy loop de loops and all kinds of aerobatics, just to remind you they're free?


A few updates:

They still haven't identified the mysterious Piano Man. Haunts me. When the story first broke in April or May, some people suggested he was probably just a starving musician, faking amnesia for free publicity. Now I sort of hope that's true. At least if it's all a stunt he can miraculously regain his memory any morning he chooses and go off to sell his new compositions.

No one ever claimed the unmentionables found on my terraza. This morning I became the proud owner of a pair of Speedo swimming goggles that fell into my petunias! Soon as I figure out how to say swimming goggles in Spanish (some kind of gafas maybe?) guess I'll hang up another poster: Found in Bajo A's petunias....

My library books are due August 11, if anyone wants to be so kind as to remind me in the comment box. On the 10th perhaps?

Friday, August 05, 2005

Sign here please

One of the hardest things about learning to speak Spanish well, for me at least, is the sheer drama of the language. Spanish is big. Bold. Spanish draws attention to the speaker, as he rrrrrolllls elegant r's and hisses guttural j's ..jjjjamón....

I struggled a long time with j's and r's and the ever nethethary lithp..Spain's lispy soft c.

You just can't speak Spanish and not take risks. This is not a conservative language. Nothing about Spanish is understated.

English, on the other hand, is appropriately reserved. English holds back. Stays professional. English keeps a stiff upper lip, literally and figuratively. English expresses in 8 short words what might take a literary Spaniard 4 paragraphs.

So now that I've finally conquered my stage fright, now that I rrrrooolllllllll my r's and hhhhhhhhhhhhhack the jjjjjjjjjjjjjj in jjjjjjjjjjamón, the Spanish are after my signature.

Seems it's understated. Reserved. Foreign.

The bank teller pushed the check I was cashing back at me today, straight across the tabletop, without a pause. He was pointing at my appropriately conservative signature on the back, impatiently tap-tap-tapping my sweet little 4 centimeter signature.

-Is this a signature? Incredulous.

-Well, yes.

He laughed. At my signature! (Firma, in Spanish.) Laughed!

I agreed it wasn't a Spanish signature, the way I usually add "Well it's not a Spanish name" as I watch the panic grow on the face of any Spaniard who's just been asked to write my name.

And we laughed some more. At least I make friends.

Last month his colleague passed my check back to me and told me I'd forgotten to sign it --- except I hadn't forgotten.

When I got back to the office yesterday I collected autographs. Large, flowery firmas from the ladies, bold, brazen scribbles from the men, every one of them finished with a well-practiced freehand flourish under the name --- sharp lines or intersecting curves emphatically underlining each firma's crystal clear message:

THIS IS MY SIGNATURE. And I've taken the time to develop it into a work of art. And I'll take up of as much of the page as humanly possible.

Size matters, it would seem, in Spanish signatures.

If my signature drifts into your text, all the better.


Just to amuse my teller, I may work something up for my next check. Of course it won't match the signature on anything else I've ever signed, including the residency card I use to identify myself when cashing the monthly pay-the-landlady-in-sweet-untraceable-cash check that causes all this trouble.

But somehow I think he'll be happier. Integration and all that. Watching me learn to live in Spain.