Thursday, September 29, 2005

Segovia (Spain VII)

Another town with narrow streets but Segovia is much nicer than Toledo. Just more friendly and a bit smaller. We are on our way to the Alcazar, one of the town's treasures (the other being the aqueduct, a construction dating from more than 2000 years. Can any of of our modern constructions last that long??) when we encounters people dressed in period costumes. Most are on horses and dressed as Napoleon's soldiers. Some are wearing the traditional Turkish tarbush. We ask. They are shooting a movie directed by Milos Forman. The subject would be something related to the Goya's painting called "Los Fusilamientos del 3 de Mayo". Probably a movie exposing the massacres perpetrated by the French soldiers at that time. I make a mental note to keep an eye for the movie's release.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Helping hands (Spain VI)

People here will help you to death. It seems that it is considered bad manners to say "I don't know" to someone asking for an information. A bit like Japan.
As a civil service to all of you reading this and traveling to Spain, here is what you should know:
If someone you just asked for directions starts by shaking his or her head, it's a bad sign. What will follow is probably completely wrong, just a way to avoid admitting ignorance.
In the 5 days we spent in Spain, we got the funny "I see you're very disoriented. You'll never get there from here", the subtle "Keep driving for another 4 blocs and then ask again", the obvious "Just turned around, you may find someone who can give you direction further down the road".
The best, though, was the small town meeting that my asking provoked in one instance. The old man that I had called from my car, just turned around to ask a small group of elders sited nearby and there it was, a group of 4 or 5 men discussing among themselves with from time to time the first man turning to me and smiling as if to say "Be patient, we'll have the answer after one more round of intense discussion".
It was too funny to get annoyed even if we were a bit behind schedule.
We were on our way after about 10 full minutes. We started to follow the indications but soon were lost again and had to ask someone else after about 4 blocks.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Toledo (Spain V)

Still in the cathedral, after my visit to the depressing gallery, I return to find my mother eager to exit. On our way out, she tells me of a scene she has just witnessed. An old man came to the entrance of the gallery and asked the guard to use the private batheroom there. He apparently needed to go without delay. The guard was pityless. "The batheroom is private and you cannot use it. You'll have to exit the cathedral (and pay another 8 Euros if you want to come back in..)".
My mother is outraged with the lack of sympathy from the guard. She has already all sorts of theories on the old man's health and gives me the name of half a dozen medications that could provoke such urgent need.
We get out in the Sun looking for a bathroom too. I had to go.

Toledo (Spain IV)

We spent one full day exploring Toledo, a beautiful but very touristy town. The cathedral is mentioned on all the guides so in we went, shelling 8 Euros to enter the imposing structure.
If there was a concept of "kitsch" in the 13th century, this would be it. Everything is overdone, from the wall decoration to the chairs. Sober is not a word that would be included in the dictionary of the builders of this place. I got bored very quickly and make my way to the gallery that my guide recommended.

My mother is too tired to follow me and I explore the rooms by myself. I can't believe what I see. At the difference of the rest of the cathedral, the gallery seems almost neglected. Cramped and dimly lit, the walls are covered by paintings that are hard to see in their full glory. Each one of these paintings would make the joy of a museum but here, they seem forgotten and dismissed. A painting by El Greco is simply put on the mantelpiece, leaning against the wall without any visible support. I can get as close as I like from the frame and the canvas. A Carravagio is hanged too high to get a good look at it. I can't find the Goya advertised in the guide. Some paintings are hung one over another to use all the wall space possible. I'm dismayed by the lack of care for these paintings. When I will tell of the experience to friends, they'll assure me that the paintings are probably fakes put there for display. I hope that's the case because otherwise, whoever is in charge is guilty of unbelievable neglect toward these masterpieces. The thought occurs to me that a thief would be entitled to steal them if only to ensure that they are kept properly.

Road rage (Spain III)

The streets here (San Lorenzio de El Escorial) are narrow and don't allow for more than one (small) car to go through. This, apparently, was of no concern for a driver who parked right in the middle of the street. Yes. An empty car in front of a traffic light at the end of a steeply inclined street and no trace of the driver. What was most infuriating was that there was a small space on the left of the street and just backing the car by half a meter would have allowed traffic to move freely.
So here I am, stuck behind an empty car so I do what anyone would have done: I honk and honk and honk, tapping on the steering wheel with some kind of rhythm to add some urgency to the noisy message.
A woman soon comes running but to my amazement, she does not enter her car but just tells me in Spanish that she will be back very shortly. I plead in English for her to move her car just 50 centimeters as she is right next to her car but she just keeps telling me that she will come back shortly. She must have spent more time pleading to come back than she would have just backing her car. I just can't believe my ears and start insulting her in English thinking at the same time that she'll probably think that I am an American.
Some people are watching the exchange, one man comes up in front of my car to check that indeed I can't go through without her moving the car. He seems satisfied that it is indeed not my fault if the "traffic" (there is only one other car behind mine) is backed up. An old couple is standing at the intersection and the man is shaking his head. I wonder who they are rooting for: the local woman or the foreigner swearing in English with a French accent.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Past and present (Spain II)

Avila of Saint Teresa's fame. Her parents were Jews converted during the Spanish Inquisition. There is now a church built on her birth place and it serves as a small museum. I'm surprised at the lack of "touristy" things around. Maybe it is just not the season but there is almost no one. The small church is rather quiet and dark, the air filled with heavy incense smell. Still, it is a sober place, at odd with all the other churches that I am used to see. A nice place.
I hear my mother muttered with a tone expressing something like admiration "Not bad for a little Jewish girl!"

Avila is also the town where Torquemada, of Inquisition fame, is buried. When I suggest to my mother to go see his burial place, she refused with a sharp "Why should I go visit this man?" I am startled to realize that for her, the Inquisition is not long gone history, it is the event that forced her family out of Spain. It is the event which explains why her parents spoke only Spanish, an heritage of exile and lost dignity. It is hard to believe that we are still so closely related to events that occurred more than five centuries ago.

Scenes from Spain (I)

It could have been plucked out from "Les vacances de Mr Hulot" a delightful French movie by Jacques Tati (if you have not seen it, rent it or "Mon oncle". You can't go wrong).

We're waiting for our bags in Madrid airport. I'm traveling with my mother to the country of her ancestors. All the people from our plane are there, in front of the baggage belt, waiting. Luggages start arriving but nobody grab any bags. Some people bend and check and then let go of the black or red bag. The scene is surreal. A large group of people, looking intensely to that belt, scrutinizing every bag that comes around and nothing happening. The belt becomes more and more crowded with luggage of all sizes. One small suitcase falls on the other side, stuck there, inaccessible to anybody without crossing the moving belt.

Then after 10 mn we hear an announcement in Spanish. I can understand most of it but my mother translates it nevertheless. The bags for our flight are to be delivered on belt 5, not belt number 7. We were looking at luggages belonging to people on another plan.
I wonder where they are. Maybe stuck in front of belt number 7, wondering why nobody is claiming any bags.

Monday, September 19, 2005

You're too late

There was a murder on my street. A man walking his dog got shot about one block of where I live. It happened on Saturday night and since then I live in the safest street in DC.
We have about 10 police cars parked in the street, several giant flood lights and a truck equipped with cameras. I asked one of the policeman. "So why are doing this?". He looked surprised "To prevent any crimes. Criminals won't attack with that much light around". Maybe I am missing some important information in crime enforcement but it seems that the best use of 10 police cars is not in the street after a crime has been committed. I will fell much safer with these police cars going around in the complete neighborhood, not just parked in my street. The murderer is not going to come back to see how everyone is doing. He's gone. Somewhere in the city. Walking some other streets where there will be soon 10 police cars stationed and giant flood lights.
Always fighting the last war...

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Bad move on a first date

Saturday night and I'm at the Warehouse theater to see "The trial", an adaptation of a novel by Franz Kafka. Forget "Harry met Sally". A Kafka's play in by far the best evening for a first date.
Not mine. I'm just waiting for a friend and ordering tea at the theater coffee shop. A couple is sited at the counter on my right and I hear her asking "So. What do you do?" First date! His answer mentions psychology and NIH but I can't really hear all of it. She clearly did and asks more questions about his work and then mentions a friend of hers that works at NIH as a contractor. She speaks non-stop. He just nods. Then silence. He lowers his eyes to drink and she sips slowly from her glass. I get my tea and turn around when I hear her ask "So how much do I owe you for the whiskey?" I am hoping that he will refuse any payment, act with class and waive the request away but I hear his voice, speaking slowly, as if he was actually computing the amount. "It should be 6 dollars. No 7. Well 6 is fine." I do not hear her reaction but he clearly blew it. Probably on purpose. Kafka on their first date.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


This morning, on Military road driving at about 9 AM going west toward Connecticut Ave. The car in front in the left line just stops. I see the driver getting out, slapping the door with rage and just walking from the car. I'm not sure how the cars behind are going to avoid collision with it (traffic on this road, in the Rock Creek part portion is quite fast). I drive away trying to see something in my rear view mirror. He sure looked pissed off.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Reading out loud

This morning on my way to the local farmer's market. Near the 7/11, where all the Hispanic guys looking for work gather, I see a blond woman handing leaflets to a group of quiet, weary looking men who have taken refuge from the sun in the small park nearby. They're looking at her with puzzlements as she is trying to give the small blue leaflets. I look more closely and see that the flyers are marked with large letters claiming "Reading out loud". This is a literacy program. She wants to teach them to read in English.
She is having no luck in giving out the flyers. Maybe she should learn Spanish....

Friday, September 09, 2005

Only in America

On Florida Ave, on my way back home. Two women walking and talking. One is dressed all in orange. Tight orange T-shirt that leaves very little of her body shape unmarked and a skimpy orange short. The other is covered from head to toes with a black Islamic gown. One can see only half of her face as even her forehead is covered with the black heavy fabric. I can see she is also wearing some sort of pants underneath as they come into view as she walks.
Both women are walking and talking. Both so dissimilar but each claiming theirs rights to be what they want to be, dress as they please. In total freedom. I can't help thinking that in a country run by the proponents of the heavily dressed woman, this would not happen. Her friend would be put to jail immediately or would be too afraid to dress like this. They don't do tight orange T-shirts and shorts in Iran.

But this is America. Live and let live.
I see them enter "Mecca", a small store catering to the local Muslim population.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Brother's help

On my way back from work, on Florida Ave. I'm stopped at a red light, a BMW is on my left. I see one guy on the sidewalk rushing toward the car waving. He is wearing baggy jeans and a torn T-shirt. The window of the BMW comes down and I hear "How're you doing man?" Some hand shakes and a plea for help. Someone in the car says something and I hear the guy outside saying, "I'll call you, I'll call you" while punching down numbers on his cell phone.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Food pyramid

I'm in the supermarket with a friend picking up a couple of stuff. We're waiting in line at the cash register. A woman comes behind us with a cart full of food. She is enormous. A little skinny girl is on her side.
The cart is filled with pizza boxes, chips, cookies, ice cream buckets. I don't see any vegetable in that cart. No fruit. Not even bananas. The little girl rushes to grab a couple of small bags of fried onion rings that are displayed near the cashiers. Her mom (?) opens one and start eating, sharing with the little one. I wonder if she realizes she is killing her daughter slowly...