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Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Home in the City?

Okay, I am going to try to make this a quick update, as Matt and I began an Intensive Spanish class last week, and now what ever time I spend sitting down and not studying feels like procrastination. However, it is exciting to be learning a language that I really do need to know. Trying to explain the nuances of a medication, dosage, side effects ect. with a pharmacist, and we are both using hand gestures and making little diagrams, well, it is good for a laugh, but not for getting the medication. So, the class meets 3 and a half hours, 5 days a week in the city.

I want to make sure that all of you loyal followers who remember my last blog, relaying my rather clumsy adventures on the metro, are aware that I have rapidly transformed into just another blasé commuter.

 See here how I am absorbed in my study of Spanish, not nervously checking the metro maps above the doors to figure out where the heck I am. And notice how competently I guard my purse with my arm, another sign of an experienced metro commuter who has been warned countless times about the “gypsies” who are like magicians in their ability to purloin possessions.  

There are, however, advantages to stumbling about and actually looking around. On my first day to class I took a wrong turn and found myself in a tunnel with the following, rather good graffiti:

While I am at it, here is more art created in the metro (Ebs, this is for you). I had to get to several far flung places on the metro on Friday and kept myself amused by drawing people's feet. Much as I prefer to draw faces, I have found that people are distincly more comfortable with someone staring at their feet than at their faces. 

And here is a photo of our language school that I took from their website:

I guess they do not want it to be too widely known that a quarter to a third of the student population is actually well out of their 20's.

However, it is also true that most of the students are college age. They come from all over the world and their common language is English. While ostensibly they are united in their goal to learn Spanish, like students everywhere the real object is to enjoy each other and have as much fun as possible. As a result, once out of the classrooms little is heard but English and for those who did not grow up speaking English, I am guessing that they learn more English than Spanish in the end.

After Spanish class we return to our little hotel apartment. Here we are in the “office” before Adele and Iris get home:

There are, however, distinct benefits and pleasures to life at NH La Florida as well. Here we are again finishing a Spanish style lunch, (which is to say large and late) in the restaurant downstairs. The food is excellent and surprisingly inexpensive, which is common of Spanish restaurants.  Please stay tuned for a blog post dedicated to eating in Spain.

But the real news is……….. last weekend we decided for sure that we would take the house in Pozuelo that you can see pictured in the blog post “Finding a Spanish Home”.We negotiated on the lease and took measurements of rooms. All week we have planned what furniture we can fit in the house from our shipment, and what we need to buy.

But the real REAL news is, on Thursday our realtor informed us that the current tenants have decided to renew for a year. So, we don’t get the house after all.

After a brief sense of shock and disappointment, we decided – hey, fine, maybe there is something better. Maybe we did not want to live in walking distance to the school in a house with a great art studio and nice eat in kitchen anyway. Hmmm.

Matt and I had always been interested in living in the city, and Adele and Iris were actually not as opposed to it as previously. So, with the help of our loyal real estate agent, Chris, we took a look Friday evening at the neighborhood of an apartment in the city, and just this afternoon we looked at the apartment itself. AND, baring any unexpected obstructions, we have decided to take it.

Here is an abbreviated version of the description that Matt sent to our parents:

  Hi everyone,

We've made a pretty radical shift in our rental plans. Instead of renting a large but anonymous row house in the suburbs, we've decided to rent a spectacular but small apartment in the city. If you would like to look at it with Google streetview, send us an email and we will send you the address.
Corner of a buildingnear ours, Friday night.
We'll be on the top floor (7th counting the Spanish way, 8th counting the US way). The living/dining area has a 25-30 foot wall of windows on the west side, facing the Parque del Oeste.

Since the park itself slopes down from where it starts across the street, it's as though we're 15 stories up, looking out over the western horizon. Beyond the park is the Casa de Campo, a 4,000 acre forested park with a lake, amusement park and zoo. A gondola two blocks away takes people on a horizonal journey above the trees to the center, about a mile or two away.

On the wide sidewalk just below the apartment is a creperie and a cafe/bar, with several others along both sides of the street going either way.

Two restaurants in front of the apartment building

Matt and girls checking out the menu at the Creperie
The park is full of joggers, people walking their dogs and a few bums as well. The word is it is quite safe, at least during the day.

 There's no terrace, but a four-meter-wide section of the windows opens up floor-to-ceiling right in front of the dining area, leaving just a wrought iron railing between you and the open air. It's basically dining al fresco without going outside. There are roll-down awnings all across the front glass wall to protect from the afternoon sun.

The kids' bedrooms present a major challenge, because it'll be hard to make them feel anything but cramped. There's also no dedicated studio space for Margot. Finally, we have to severely cut back on the stuff we were planning to ship, now that we'll be in an apartment half the size of our house in Concord. We've pored through the mover's list of boxes and furniture items, and it's nearly impossible to determine what's what. Picking the right stuff off of the list will be a major gamble.
Here is Iris demonstating the very small but lovely elevator.

What an adventure! This should be a fun place to visit, if we can figure out a place for guests to sleep. We'll probably end up with a sleep sofa in the living room, and have one of the bedrooms available at least until Claire arrives next year. If all else fails, there are hotels in the neighborhood.

Margot here again,
And the neighborhood is great. Ironically, though we will be in the city, there will actually be much more green space available for a walk from home then there would have been in Pozuelo, or from our house in West Concord.

And that has got to be it for the night. It is just 6:20 pm on the east coast of the USA, but it is 12:20 am here. And this was supposed to be a quick update!

As always, please feel free to comment or send me an email:


Saturday, September 18, 2010

A trip to Madrid with a Graffiti Lover

So here I am in our 800 square foot aparthotel with the anonymous furniture. Matt has gone to the office. The kids have gotten on the bus. We have long since unpacked at this point. I don’t have a job or an art project to work on, nor a studio, little in the way of art supplies, and no car. Not even my sewing machine to do a project or fix some clothes. What is a girl to do?

Remember “I Love Lucy”? What did Lucille Ball do in that apartment all day?
And particularly when there was no Ethel?

I was feeling a lot like Lucy here. Though, actually, her apartment looks pretty darn good. Maybe I am feeling more like Alice Kramden from the “Honeymooners”:

What did she do all day, while Art was driving the bus?

Of course, I could go to the Prada, or one of the other museums in Madrid, but this was not feeling compelling. Most of the art that I have seen since coming here has been graffiti. Not that most of it is art by a long shot, but some of it is quite good. What I really want to do is get some spray paint and do some of my own.

Hmmm….This seems a bit risky. It has been a lot of trouble getting here, and being shipped back because I was caught doing graffiti would be pretty bad.

So, I decide to go shoot some graffiti and learn something about the bus/metro system while I am a it.

Taking pictures in public without creeping people out is a bit tricky.

I am quite familiar at this point with bus #162, but always going the other direction to Hipercourt-Court Ingles, the absolutely massive grocery/department store. Happily, I am not headed there. I am heading to Moncloa Station in Madrid, which seems a reasonable direction for finding good graffiti.
The black arrow shows you where I have arrived on the city metro map. It was about a 10 minute bus ride.

The station is enormous, or seems so as it is my first time trying to make sense of it, with several levels of buses and subways. But, for now, it is a simple matter of getting up to the street. Here is the view when I emerge.
Here you see the Arco de  la Victoria (Arch of Victory). I disliked this monument from the first, I am proud to report, as I learn, in looking at my guide, that it was built by Franco to honor his Nationalist army for their defeat of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.  For those who prefer not to be reminded of this event, the monument is more often referred to now as Puerto de Moncloa, or Gate of Moncloa.

Here is a more grandiose view of it:

 Looking about I see the people in the following photo. Nothing exciting, but I include their image as they illustrate two common fashions here in Madrid – suits and ties for men at work, and Roman sandals for most women:

Ever mindful of my future visitors I offer this image of the many cabs that may await you should you venture into Moncloa station from our house in the inner suburbs.

but, alas, the graffiti around Moncloa is quite poor.

And so I descend back into the earth to consider the transport system.

I am trying to guess by looking at the maps on display in the metro where I should go to find good graffiti. The names of Metro stops don't seem to correspond with the names on my map of the city. This one shows street names and points of interest as well as the metro stops, but, even with my reading glasses I can not make anything out:

Hoping for a better map, I approach this representative of Madrid’s public transport system.
I have found most Spaniards to be friendly and helpful, but it turns out I have run into a member of that distinct subset who don’t seem to feel that a no calls for any elaboration what so ever.
First I try out the phrase that I am best at saying in Spanish: Habla usted Ingles? (Do you speak English?) (and, btw, I do know about those upside down ?'s, but my computer does not)


I check a few words in my Simple Sayings in Spanish book, and say, in perfect Spanish I am sure, “ Do you have a map of the metro?”
I stand waiting for some explanation of this curious fact. Finally, a bit irritated at my presence, she babbles rapidly in Spanish and gestures to the other side of the barricade of metro gates. Okay, so I have to get through those gates. I turn my attention to deciphering the ticket machines:

I really do not posses the best system of neurons for this kind of task, even in English.
It must be time to eat. Those neurons could definitely use some glucose, and help was at hand:

The Spanish love “pasteles”. Croissant and the like are never far from reach. And they are unfailingly excellent and usually inexpensive.

Here is my repast from Alpunto: a Napolitanas de jamon y quesa, or a croissant with ham and cheese, and the ubiquitous Fanta.

Back to the ticket machines. I managed to decipher that I could use credit cards, coins, or bills up to 50 euros. I try a few cards and they were spit back. I had used most of my coins and my only bill is a 50 euro, and that was similarly rejected. I am skeptical that the machine would take a 50, but I could see no machine for making change.

So, restored with glucose, and armed with a new phrase gleaned from my electronic dictionary (Thanks, Mom!)
 I am ready to return to the unhelpful woman downstairs.

“Tiene cambio?” (Do you have change?)
Again, I stood there, thinking -- surely I am going to get more instruction than that. She wasn’t budging and I finally came up with a phrase on my own.
“Nada en absolute?” (Nothing at all?) As I gestured about, thinking she would point me to a change machine.

Okay. Back upstairs to find a place to get change. Many small stores look askance at a 50. I have to really buy something. Ah! A Papeleria. I can always find something I want at these small stationary/art stores.
For an office/art supply junky, this was a fabulous find.  Very cool Faber-Castell eraser and sharpener that I did not have!

At this point I have decided that, if all I do is successfully get on the metro and back home – that will be success. I am on my way; two new 5 euro bills are quickly eaten by the machine which spits out a pass for 10 trips, plus a euro change. Fabulous, I go through the gates, past my taciturn friend.

Now which of the many trains shall I take? Where do they go? And how am I to find out where some decent graffiti is anyway? Public displays of information are noticeably unhelpful in this regard.

I could make out that there was a train going toward a University. That seemed like as likely a place as any for some good graffiti so I got on

Woman on the train
Please note, once again the Roman sandals. They are as common and varied as jeans in the States. And jeans are less common here.

There is nothing quite like arriving on a University campus for making me feel I have suddenly aged dramatically.

I am arriving at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid which, thanks to Wikipedia, I can tell you is the top public university in Spain and one of the oldest universities in the world, with its foundation dating back to the 13th century.

In the late 1920's and until he was deposed in 1931, His Majesty King Alfonso XIII

bequeathed vast amounts of land and undertook an enormous building project with the object of making the university one of the best in the world.

During the Spanish Civil War, 1933-1936, the campus became a primary front in the battle between Franco's Nationalists and the Republicans (no, nothing like our Republicans). The students, professors, the many distinguished visiting intellectuals, were all forced to flee, unless they chose to stay and fight.

Here is a passage, also thanks to Wikipedia, from John Sommerfield's "Volunteer in Spain":

When we next came back to University City we were put into the Philosophy Building. We built barricades with volumes of Indian metaphysics and early nineteenth-century German philosophy; they were quite bullet-proof. (...) Life here was quiet, orderly. On clear mornings, about eleven o'clock, we were bombed. A few shells came over late in the afternoons; the rest of the time we sniped, read, talked, studied Spanish, or dug trenches. (...) We explored the library; in the great reading-room anti-tank guns stood on the tables; the valuable books and manuscripts had been taken away, but there was plenty to interest us. (...) On a cold morning I found De Quincey's Lake Poets and rolled myself up in a carpet and read voraciously; the day passed in a stupor, I was with Wordsworth and Coleridge, in another place, another time...

Little of its past glory or suffering was evident at the metro stop where I emerged. Mostly I noted a great quantity of university students and of notices for letting  or looking for apartments  and selling one thing or another.

I half expected to see the notices on people’s backs. The graffiti that I managed to see on a fairly brief foray into the campus was quite disappointing.

The sort of thing that makes one feel maybe they should all be sent to the lock up.
Well, it was time to get home in time for the kids getting off the bus. Making my way back to dear old bus #162 was smoother.
Thanks to my camera's self timer, here I am having successfully returned to the Moncloa station after my first successfully navigated trip on the Madrid metro.

But I did feel some sense of disappointment not to have gotten a photograph of anything decent . About 2/3rds of the way home, the bus passed over the A6. There along the highway is a wall of reasonably good graffiti. Clearly a place that the artists have designated to show off.

I hopped off at the next stop and estimated that I had just enough time to go back and take the photos and get back in time for the next bus which would be there in 13 to 17 minutes.
Here is the ledge the graffiti artists are going out on to do their work.

This is my favorite. I like how the artist modulated the colors and forms in such a way that they appear to be rising out of the wall.
And then I race back to the bus stop. AND……….

I just missed it.
Me at the bus stop where I will wait another 13 to 17 minutes

But, hey, it was a great trip. I got some decent graffiti photos; I am no longer feeling intimidated by the bus or metro system; I know how to say "Do you have change?",  and I got a great eraser and pencil sharpener.

If you got all the way through this post and would like to comment. Please, leave a comment here on the blog, or send me an email:

Till next time!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Finding a Spanish Home

Hello out there,
Before I get started on today's post, I would like to thank everyone who has left a comment or sent me an email commenting on the blog (or/and sharing your own stories). It can be quite disconcerting to have an entirely invisible audience, so it is great to get at least a brief check in. In case you do not have it, my email is .

Okay, so back to finding our Spanish home. For those with really poor knowledge of geography, now you don’t have to embarrass yourselves asking – where is Spain anyway, or Italy? Follow the little white lines to where Claire went and the rest of us:

And here is where Madrid is. Yes, yes, of course, the capital of Spain. (And Claire is in Grottaferatta, just outside of Rome, the capital of ITALY!)

And, of course we all know that Madrid is derived from the Muslim name, dating back to at least the 9th century AD, al-Majrit, or in Arabic, المجريط, “source of water”. That water is little evident aside from a surprising number of trees, and a yet more surprising number of swimming pools. Even the most modest apartment is almost sure to have a pool associated with it. Though it could be about the size of a dining room table.

So, here we are in Madrid, cuz of that fabulous airport that will fly Matt all about Europe, but how to decide where to live in or around a city that we don’t know?

PLEASE! Do not attempt to drive with this map.

The first simplifying factor was choosing the girls’ school. (If you are curious about why we chose the American School of Madrid, send me an email. I would be happy to elaborate but don’t want to force everyone through my tortured process.)

On the map, the school is the X. The airport is the funny looking triangle with a line going down, and Matt’s office is the crushed circle in the upper left. The sort of yellowy green stuff is parks and reserves. Not my most successful bit of art work.

Matt and I were tempted to live in the city, somewhere near Retiro Park and El Prada. Iris and Adele were decidedly against the city life. We looked at some homes in the outer suburbs, Boadilla and Majadahnda, but they looked too much like American suburbs. We have ended up focusing in on two towns, close to the city and the school, Pozuela de Alarcon and Aravaca.

Chris is the real estate agent who has been helping us. She is an American, but has lived here many years. The head of the American School later said we are very fortunate to have her as she is “muy enchufe”, (literally a plug, or plugged in), and that in Spain it is otherwise hard to get things to happen. In fact, without our plugged in realtor this is as much as we could see of houses and apartments:

 In Spain walls and gates across driveways are typical. Houses, yards and gardens are surrounded by 8 or 10 foot high fences and hedges. Gated communities are common, but even within a gated community each house is hidden from the others. We had read that there is much less crime in Spain than in the States, and the security surrounding housing is perplexing to us. This is a mystery that may take some time to unravel.

Just this past Saturday we saw a house in Pozuelo de Alarcon, which we like very much and are considering renting:

Here are Matt and the girls with the owner of the house behind them. He is a lovely Spanish man. When we were introduced to him, he knew that as Americans we expect to shake hands but keep a distance, but as a friendly, warm Spaniard he could not be satisfied to not do the usual kisses on each cheek with the females, and an enthusiastic handshake with a grasping of the shoulder for the man. 

 The house does not look like much from the outside, but it is quite comfortable and has a good feeling to it.

In the kitchen looking at the eat-in area

View into the kitchen
To understand how happy this kitchen made me, you have to imagine that all the other houses we have seen have had a more traditional Spanish set up, which is to have a small kitchen set apart from the rest of the house, where the woman who is employed to cook and clean would work.

Iris on the back porch

Much as I would like to experience this new culture, I have quickly realized that there are many aspects of my life and our family’s that I am actually not willing to alter for any long period of time, like having a kitchen that is the heart of the house, and eating dinner before 9:00 at night.

And here is the obligatory pool, shared with the other houses on the street. Oddly enough, as warm as it is here, the pools are only open between May and the end of September, as they are uncovered and unheated and the nights get cold.

Here is the view from the end of the street, Calle Urano. You can see it is a bit urban. The red dot, almost in the center is a bus stop that can get you to Madrid pretty easily. So, if you visit, you may not be able to use that pool, but you can get yourself into the city.

Till Later! Hasta Ahora!