Saturday, October 22, 2005

Madrid: Under Construction

The weekdays are all pretty much the same: I wake up too late, I go to the library, and I try to make sense of a manuscript or two, and then get bogged down in secondary sources. I've been eating a lot of grilled cheese-with-spinach sandwiches for dinner, since by the time I get home it's pretty late, and I'm never all that hungry. Plus, when I was in Italy earlier this summer they had tramezzini (basically, sandwich halves on American-style sandwich bread--they sometimes have two layers of filling between three layers of bread, as per my first-year Italian textbook and just a couple of actual sandwiches that I saw, but for the most part were just regular sandwich halves, with the crusts cut off), and a fairly common option was cheese with spinach. And how can you go wrong with cheese and spinach?

The weekends are all pretty much the same in the see-something-on-Saturday, see-something-by-bicycle-on-Sunday pattern. Since there are too many people in the center of town, and riding a bike isn't fun if you're trying to dodge pedestrians, I've been going to the edges of town. As mentioned before, since Madrid is a landlocked city in the geographical center of the country, it doesn't really have a defined edge.

On Saturday, I went first to Lope de Vega's house (it doesn't have very many opening hours, but it was both open and free), and then to the Reina Sofia museum. Last time I went to the Reina Sofia, I only managed to see the temporary Juan Gris exhibition. This time around, I saw a lot of the permanent collect: lots of Miros, lots of Dalí, lots of Picasso, Guernica.

After riding my bicycle around on Sundays, I try to make it to the Prado for an hour or so before it closes. Three Sundays ago, I went southwest; two Sundays ago, I went northeast. Last Sunday, after a picnic with friends, I went to the Casa de Campo, which is a sprawling park that was once royal hunting grounds. Now, strangely, it's full of prostitutes: I had been told this but didn't believe it. For the first twenty minutes or so that I was riding my bicycle around, I didn't see any, and it just seemed like a regular extremely large park. At some point though, when I was riding back to town from the teleférico (cable car), I noticed that, standing along the side of the road, were prostitutes wearing barely anything. For miles. Bizarre. This is in the middle of the woods, people.

This Sunday, I just took laps around the Buen Retiro Park. I started off by taking laps in the park, but eventually I got fed up at all of the people just ambling and decided to play on the road that surrounds it. It's not too bad, actually, even though the traffic is at a fairly quick clip; circulation is clockwise for the entire park, and there aren't too many hazards to watch for. One major annoyance, though, is that cars here double park, even on busy roads, and don't leave hazard lights on, or they just sit in what is obviously a traffic lane and wait for a car to leave, and I don't mean a car that's about to leave: they just sit there and wait. Madness.

Another thing that drives me batty about Madrid is that absolutely everything is under construction. Around the Buen Retiro, a tunnel is being expanded, some roads are being worked on, and some paths in the park are being worked on. A fair number of plazas are under major repairs (largely for metro work--did I mention that an entire metro line was closed for repairs when I got here? A small stretch of it has since re-opened) and everything is far behind schedule (which is par for the course in construction universally, I suppose.)

The outskirts of Madrid are under major construction: sprawl goes for miles. There are hundreds of apartment buildings with maybe a couple of hundred people (estimating by the lack of cars and traffic) living in a place designed to hold thousands. Where I rode my bicycle two weekends ago (to Alcobendas, beyond the Northeastern reached of the city) is having an entire new metro line built. Apparently, there's a bike path out there; when I asked people where it was, they said, "oh, well, it starts right over there, but it doesn't really go anywhere yet" (I'm translating and paraphrasing, but you get the picture.)

In case you don't, here are some:

Monday, October 17, 2005

For Science

For the past three weeks, my weekends here have fit into a set pattern: on Saturday, I go on a day trip to a nearby town, and on Sunday, I ride my bicycle to somewhere beyond the M-30 highway that rings Madrid (I’ll discuss this at length in a later post.)

Towns around here all seem to have a specialty dessert item for which they’re known: marzipan in Toledo, candied almonds in Alcalá de Henares (where I went this Saturday), and yemas de Santa Teresa in Avila, where I went last Saturday.

Avila is a picturesque little city in Castilla-La Mancha an hour and a half northwest of Madrid. It was the birthplace of Santa Teresa de Jesus. Not being a hagiographile, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what kind of bloody martyrdom she suffered (if any.) I can, however, tell you that Avila has a great, full set of 900-year-old city walls and, apparently, Torquemada is buried somewhere there.

Avila is known for its yemas de Santa Teresa. A yema is an egg yolk, and yemas de Santa Teresa are candied egg yolks. They’re not candies in the shape of egg yolks. They’re just yolks, somehow suspended in sugar. They’re custard without any sort of mixing, dairy, or added flavorings. I don’t know how they’re made, but I imagine that the yemas are just cooked in a simple syrup with really low heat. They look like slightly deflated egg yolks with a shell of sugar, much like an egg-yolk gumdrop would look, if such a thing were to exist.

I bought a dozen yolks at what seems to have been the main touristy shop in Avila (it’s right on the square across from the cathedral, and was doing brisk business in yemas and membrillo [quince paste.]) The restaurant where we had eaten lunch (I had boquerones, which I will also discuss at length later) actually sold the yemas in two-packs, although at the time I’d been looking for individual ones (just to taste), but at the end, the lunch spot was a bit of a hike and I was feeling lazy, and it was close to the end of the day, and so a dozen yemas it was.

For you, dear Reader, I made this purchase, as I was not about to leave Avila without tasting its culinary pride and joy and subsequently write a blog entry about it. At the end of the day, yemas are just egg yolks that happen to be candied. Between the five of us who were there, we ate three of the egg yolks; this left nine yolks, and none of us had any intention of consuming them. Needless to say, I took them in to the Fulbright office on Monday morning, where eager Spaniards devoured them within minutes.

To get an idea of how a yema de Santa Teresa tastes, imagine the flavor of a soft-boiled egg yolk. Now imagine that somehow you’ve ingested a tablespoon or two of sugar along with it. That’s exactly what it tastes like. None of the alchemy that turns, say, mounds of sugar and egg whites into merengue, or flour, eggs, and sugar into cake is there.

The fact that these are what an entire city is known for, culinarily, leads me to make some deductions as to the historical-agricultural circumstances that led to the development of such an, ahem, specialty. For those of you unfamiliar with the Castilian-La Manchan landscape, it’s a windblown, rolling, dry kind of place. Not much grows there; it looks something like the eastern edges of the Bay Area at the end of summer, after all the grasses have gotten good and dry and golden (and are a fire hazard.) It’s not exactly the kind of landscape that produces, oh, watermelons and oranges.

In my mind, at some point historically (whether under Franco or in the seventeenth century, or both), this was a town where there was nothing to eat but eggs. A conversation about lunch may have gone something like the 17th-century Spanish language version of this:

Kid: So, what are we having for lunch today?
Mother: The same thing we have every day. Eggs.
Kid: And for dessert?
Mother: Eggs.

Also: Today, once again, I ate at La Finca de Susana (Happy birthday to me! Now I’m thirty.) I had the exact same thing as last time: everything was still delicious, but they lose some points. First, there were eight of us. The Finca, apparently, only seats parties of up to seven, and if there are eight people, rather than joining smaller square tables, they seat you at a round table intended for six. Also, while presentation on the desserts, especially, left nothing to be desired, the sauce that the caramelized duck (two of us had ordered it) was served in had messily sloshed around on the plate, and the mound of couscous, as a consequence, wasn’t a neatly-defined dome. It still tasted good, though. Finally, they lost points on the fact that Jason’s first dish (he was the only one who order both an appetizer and a main) didn’t come out until after everyone else had been served their mains. The Finca still gets really high marks, but I suppose they’re better at handling smaller groups (which is strange, since, as a restaurant, it must have at least forty tables.) Next time I go back, I’m ordering something different for my main course, but I imagine I’ll still order the heavenly postre de Timbáon for dessert.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Día de la Hispanidad/Columbus Day/Indigenous People's Day

So, I've still got no wireless at home, and yesterday was Hispanidad (erm, hispanism) Day, which is, roughly, Columbus Day, which is celebrated, roughly as an Armed Forces Day. This is a country with a large statue of Christopher Columbus in , I believe, every major city. (For all I know, there's a statue of Columbus in every village, too, but I haven't checked. The last time I was here, my cousin Paulo pointed out to me that there's a street named Dr. Fleming, after the discoverer of penicillin, in every town. After he pointed this out, I noticed it everywhere. Apparently, before penicillin, bullfighters would die of infections in their various lacerations.) Anyhow, this is definitely not Berkeley, or Sebastopol, where instead of Columbus Day there is Indigenous People's Day. In Berkeley, the tangible effect of the presence of Indigenous People's Day is that parking meters list it, rather than Columbus Day, as a meter holiday.

Anyhow, so yesterday things were closed. And there was a parade of the various branches of the armed forces down the Paseo de la Castellana. I missed the parade, getting there in time to see a few tanks just hanging out on the street, with children climbing on top of them, and soldiers posing with kids. According to friends who caught the parade on television, there were no floats or anything; there were just many, many armed forces marching, swinging their right arms in unison. I would have liked to have seen the arm-swinging-in-unison thing, I suppose. Also, I am told, there were goats in costumes. I'm not sorry that I slept in, though.

The coolest part of going at all, being as I missed the parade anyway, was that there were no cars on the Paseo de la Castellana. For those of you who don't speak Spanish, a paseo is a walk (although stroll captures the connotations better, I think.) There are many streets in Madrid named "stroll of the something-or-other." Pretty much without exception, these streets are the equivalent of in-town superhighways. The Paseo de la Castellana has a total of, I think, twelve lanes of traffic. Needless to say, it is not the most pleasant setting for a stroll, although I do walk along it every day to get to the National Library; there's a nicely landscaped median strip with trees, terrace cafés, and whatnot, but getting to the strip is particularly stressful/unpleasant.

After the (after-)parade, I headed over to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando and looked at some paintings; I really liked Goya's "Burial of the Sardine." (um, that's a rough translation. I think.) This painting is great! It's like a Bosch meets an Ensor, as done by Goya.

Then it was over to the Palacio Real to meet up with some friends, but that was closed for an official function (celebrating hispanism?), so we went to the Catedral de la Almudena, the Madrid cathedral, across the plaza, where there was an exhibit of , of all things, religious art. The cathedral itself is pretty new. Here's a page about it, translated by Google, to comic effect.

And now I am back in the library.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Basquin’ in the Plaza Mayor

From Thursday through yesterday (Sunday), the Euskadi tourism board threw a little Basque festival in the Plaza Mayor. Since I pass through the Plaza Mayor, oh, anywhere between two and eight times a day, I managed to mill about and catch a couple of performances with little to no effort on my part. There were booths with handmade soaps, wooden toys, wooden decorative items generally, and life-sized painted figures on board stands in traditional costume with oval head-sized cutouts for people to stand behind and take pictures. Is there a name for those things?

There is a lot of wood in Basque culture. Other than the items for sale in the booths, at the modern dance performance on Friday night (which involved a lot of hops and could generally be described as springy; I missed the traditional dance performance on Thursday and don’t really have a point of comparison), the instruments that were being played were what appeared to be two-by-fours of different lengths, arranged on a flat surface like a xylophone at an extremely large scale, and were hit with large dowels. This sounded not unlike the percussion section of an abstract animated bit from an old Sesame Street, or a hold sequence in a video game.

Yesterday (Sunday), I was walking to the Prado and stopped for a few minutes en route to watch a display of Basque sport. The rock-lifting competition had either ended or was yet to occur, and the log-throwing competition had been earlier in the day; what I caught was a bit of log-cutting. This is a sport that’s right out of Huck Finn: the two competitors (I imagine that this could also be a competition between more people at the same time, but in the display that I saw, there were two) race to chop through a log as quickly as possible; the first one to finish chops a second log. The loser is punished by having to chop an extra log. I didn’t stay through the end of the competition, but it all looked like a remarkably efficient ploy on some clever parent’s part to get firewood chopped cheaply and effortlessly.

There was, as is de rigeur in any cultural festival, a food stand. This one serves pintxos, which are basically tapas. For one euro, you got a half-glass of sidra (apple cider, which is actually Asturian and not Basque, I’m told) or wine, and a pintxo. I got myself a half-glass of sidra, and one of something else remarkably similar to sidra but with a name that I can’t remember, and a pintxo of bonito on toast, and one of bacalao (cod), also on toast. They were both tasty.

Monday, October 10, 2005


Wireless hasn't been working in my building (it should be fixed by tomorrow, at the latest), and I have some updating to do. Watch for several posts soon.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Toledo and The Prado

On Friday, while I was enjoying the slightly-sweet goodness of duck and couscous, I missed a café meeting of those of us who are doing independent research. It was just a casual get-together, but I had intended to go. The thought of finally eating at the Finca, apparently, replaced my plans of discussing unintelligible manuscripts, the vagaries of the National Historical Archives (AHN), and how on earth one manages to get one's act sufficiently together to write a dissertation. Did I mention that the Postre de Timbaon involves caramelization?

Yesterday, thanks to the planning of Wan, one of the Fulbrighters, I went to Toledo (there had been a trip to Segovia a couple of weekends ago planned by another Fulbrighter, but I hadn't gone, since I'd been both jetlagged and on a crackers-and-soda diet, since I wasn't feeling well.) The bus trip was a hair shorter than an hour on the way there, and an hour and a half on the way back to Madrid, since that bus, apparently, was the local. In Toledo, there are a handful of things to see, some of which I didn't, so I need to go back. Some of the things that I did see were the Transito Synagogue/Sephardic Museum, El Greco's Burial of the Count of Orgaz at the Church of Santo Tomé, and the cathedral. The alcazar is closed until 2007, and it was closed last time I went to Toledo (in 2002), too. The Santa María La Blanca Synagogue was closed when I got to it, and everyone was getting antsy to go home, so I didn't go to the El Greco house/museum this time (but I had gone in 2002; there are plenty of his paintings in the cathedral. The Plan and View of Toledo is in the museum, and that's worth going back for.)

They have marzipan in Toledo. I ate some. It wasn't as good as the kind my aunt Eugenia makes, but it was alright. It's just a different kind of marzipan. Also, given that this country is so obsessed with ham and pork products, it was no surprise that they have ham-shaped marzipan here. My aunt makes marzipan that looks like little carrots and potatoes, so there's obviously some sort of tradition of marzipan approximating savory food. Can anyone think of another dessert food that poses as a main? I suppose that there is the occasional novelty pizza, but in a general sense, I can't think of another. Zora? Brother? Katy? Suggestions?

Today, I went to the Prado and saw an exhibition on the painting program of Philip IV's Buen Retiro Palace, and then went and saw Goya's Black Paintings and his 1808 Civil War paintings.
I ended my visit with a trip downstairs to look at stuff by Joachim Patinir, Hieronymous Bosch and Albrecht Dürer. I didn't look at the entire Velázquez collection, but there was a good handful of his stuff in the Philip IV exhibition (a couple of Philip IV equestrian portraits, a couple of portraits of Baltazar Carlos, a couple of portraits of court jesters, and The Surrender of Breda). Las Meninas was (were?) in the next room over, but I didn't go into that area at all, since The Prado is only a twenty-minute stroll from where I'm living. I plan on getting over there at least three more times before I head out of town at the end of next month.