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September 28, 2007

It Would Be a Nice Place

...on working (and dying) in Logroņo...

Luis and I work with our desks facing each other. I have had a cough ever since I arrived in Spain. I am just unable to shake it completely.

After a fit of coughing I remarked, "Luis, I think I am dying..." and before I could even finish the last syllable he stated, "it would be a nice place."

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September 27, 2007

The British

I have met some truly exceptional British people in my lifetime. People so bright and witty that as an American you felt as though you have been thinking and speaking in a second language your entire life. That is not how I felt tonight.

What truly strikes me about the vernacular traveling Brit is their ability to throw bollacks to the wind from coming from a good education, a cultured and cosmopolitan country and to be the rudest, most tasteless and condescending literates on planet Earth.

Since coming to Logroņo tonight was my first time hearing my own native language being spoken in the wild. It happened when, over a steak and a glass of wine, I heard three men talking to each other with distinct accents: one sounded something like a Scots accent, the other something from somewhere north of London, and the third something like Dutch. If I didn't trust my ears I could see dark pints lined up on the bar.

I went over and introduced myself. One thing the world has taught me is that the British rarely refuse a free round and so I went and offered one up and was quickly offered a spot. Two of the men were from the UK: Newcastle and Manchester respectively, the third with the Dutch accent turned out to be Deutsch, he was from Bremen, Germany.

Within minutes I was told how I could be sleeping with the bar made ("the way you ordered those pints, you're fluent!"), or sleeping with the woman next to us at the bar ("you're fluent mate!"), or at the very least sleeping with the hookers up the block ("have you seen them?"). They asked if I had a girlfriend, and if I did it did not matter because I should be sleeping around on her. Where were we? Ah the wine is fine here, but it sure doesn't beat a pint no matter how stale in Spain. Thank goodness Guiness is half price tonight!

Very often the surprising thing is that these people are traveled. We talked about visiting Eastern Europe, the Americas, Asia...count these folks as the second set of Brits who are more impressed with the Filipina hostess bars in Cairo than the pyramids of Giza. Newcastle didn't mention the cosmopolitan culture of Zamelek, but he did whip out his mobile to show me live motion underground Egyptian pornography. She was doing all of that while wearing fishnet no less. Wait, let him rewind it again so he can re-watch his favorite part. Another Guiness please?

No, I'm sorry I never have heard of that player from Newcastle United. Oh, he's the coach? Yes, I am sorry we use the word soccer. No, I never gave a rats ass about David Beckham either.

The worst part of the entire arrangement is that, as an American, there is never a possibility to exist on the moral high ground. First there was the story about the man who asked one of the Brits if they celebrate Christmas in England. Then there was the story about the hotel clerk in North Caroline who said to Newcastle, "gee, you aren't from around here are you, you must be from Texas." Then there was the story from the German about the American policeman who wouldn't take his German passport as proper proof identification. For every Egyptian porn toting, pint-swilling, football crazed one of theirs we've got three that are dumb as stumps. And it is hard to be chopped lower than a stump.

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September 26, 2007

The New Wilderness

I had heard rumors of a bar in the old section of Logroņo called Embrujo where the foreign exchange students like hangout. According to the the city demographics my chances of meeting an English speaking foreigner here are very slim so I decided to try take any action to push the odds in my favor and to go and find that bar. Luis was more interested in staying at the office than to go out on a quest to find more English speakers, as I believe at times I am enough of a challenge for him, so I set off alone.

It was Wednesday night so the streets of the old section were very quiet. I had heard from my co-worker Carlos that most everything, including this bar I was seeking, was likely to be closed. As I walked up the street I saw a "kebob" place was open and serving a few of Logroņo's more exploratory youth. I made a mental note to return there if I didn't find anything better.

I walked for a bit and paused to look up at the old, beautiful buildings. I took a little time for myself to appreciate where I was. Logroņo is, at it's very heart, a very beautiful old city.

I turned the corner and up a narrow street. Was that a group of students in the distance? I thought I saw backpacks and messenger bags. A cat came running up the darkened street, breaking my attention.

I rounded another corner toward Calle de Mayor and toward the old Cinema Moderna. Little closed doorways to little closed establishments were everywhere. One and then another, some more steps up the cobblestones and finally an orange glow and old wood: Embrujo! It was empty save for a young bar man and his friends who were smoking and joking together at the front of the house.

I touched the wood and closed my eyes to remember the route. My stomach panged for food and so I headed back for a gyro. I asked for a "shwarma con los todos y mucho salsa picante por favor" and the Pakistani man instantly asked me from what country I was from in perfect English. English! I asked him in Spanish if he knew that I was foreign because I liked my food spicy. We discussed the finer points of sub-continental cuisine, the relatively bland Spanish palette, as well as the rampant xenophobia in Logroņo.

He told me of a Pakistani restaurant that was near my office. He told me of a private school that taught foreigners like me Spanish part time. He offered to show me both places if I returned tomorrow at around 6, before he had to open the shop for dinner. I ate my food, thanked him, and set off to try a drink at Embrujo before taking the long walk home.

On my way to the bar I started to feel oddly guilty. I felt guilty for wishing at times for this city to be more cosmopolitan, to be more globalized. I had a realization that it was a beautiful thing that in modern Europe there can exist a place of nearly a couple hundred thousand people that still have their monoculture, their traditions: they still have festival where the entire town attends, two brothers who crush grapes with their feet for more than 30 years still are the ones who crush the grapes into must for everybody, and this first must made from the collective offerings of the entire region are still offered to the virgin as it has been for who knows how many centuries. So what if they call a gyro a kebab?

I reached into my pocket to see how much change I had. I thought back to earlier this morning when I was buying bread at the supermarket and I saw an old woman pour out her coin purse onto the counter, frustrated at being unable to count the strange Euro coins more efficiently. She probably still converts everything to pesetas in her head.

At Embrujo I was still the only one in the bar. I ordered a Vodka and asked for some olives. I sat silently and watched the barman and his friends roll cigarettes and laugh with each other. As I drank I began to look around and then I noticed all of the postcards and currency from new friends from all over the world honoring old memories from Logroņo, tacked up into the old Spanish hardwood.

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September 24, 2007

The Abandoned Shoe Factory of Haro

On Sunday the festivities of San Mateo were well over. All of Logroņo was quiet. I suspected the few people milling about were severely hungover. I had read in the paper today that Sunday was "Logroņo sin Coche" day. This was probably a good thing as most people chose to shuffle across the intersections rather than walk.

Luis and I took the car up to the center of town in order to find some tourist information on exploring La Rioja. We started off late in the day and although there seemed not to be a car moving anywhere in the city, all of the free street parking was taken. I showed Luis the beauty of the empty municipal ramps.

We arrived at the tourist office to find it closed for siesta. We decided to burn the hour and a half waiting for it to reopen by walking around the northern part of the city snapping photographs with my Holgaroid instant camera. It was an utterly perfect day: warm sun, a light breeze, and not a cloud in the sky. Luis had commented several times on how the Holga was "a fine piece of mechanics."

We crossed the river Ebro twice and made a loop around the Plaza de Toros. I tried but failed to find any evidence of scorching in the hills from when they were set ablaze during the fireworks display. The local paper had said that it was caused by a stray shell that somehow had been pointed directly against the wind and at the mountains.

As we were returning to the tourist office I spotted two girls in long skirts with black name tags, "LDS members!" I exclaimed, and they spun on their heels to come and talk to us. One of the girls was Spanish and the other was from Florida. The girl from Florida seemed as though she had been starving for English and we started up a genial conversation on the merits of hominy grits.

All this chit chat about the finer points of American cuisine ("did you know that you can find them at Al Campo?" I had told her) seemed to bore her Spanish compatriot and she began to fill out an informational form inviting Luis and I to meet with her LDS group some other Sunday ("you can even speak English there!" she told me). It is such a pity when people are all business. I informed her as gently as I could that I was quite comfortable in my heathen ways, being as one with my animal nature and all, but that I have a great respect for LDS as I haven't met an rude, uneducated, LDS member anywhere. It is good to go out and meet the world, no matter the context you do it in. It is a shame that more Americans do not get out of the country, walk around and talk to people even if it is only about the merits of hominy grits.

The man in the tourist office was exceedingly nice. He gave us an English and Spanish copy of everything he had. I even asked him about the possibility for taking Spanish classes and he took the time to search the local university's website for information. Again and again we saw information on a city called "Haro" and so Luis and I decided to drive the car to discover what was there.

Forty kilometers and twenty five minutes later we pulled the car into a much smaller version of Logroņo. We parked the car and made a bee-line for the central square of the city and staked out a place for us to return and have a drink later in the evening. We referred to the map and decided to hike to the highest point in the city in order to check out the view.

Finding the route to the highest point was easy: all we had to do was look for the wiry crowns of the cell towers peaking above the roof line of the apartment buildings and walk toward them. The hill was directly in the center of town. Eventually we found ourselves ascending a long abandoned road of broken and eroded concrete dotted to one side with large abandoned factory buildings.

A smashed television marked the head of a trail to a hole in the side of a factory where rubber shoes and the remnants of the cardboard containers that held them were quite literally hemorrhaging outward onto the hillside. This was perhaps the last rubbery burp of production of what appeared to be this town's final experiment with any industrialization beyond wine. I couldn't help myself but to climb inside and explore and goad Luis into following me.

Shoes and cardboard covered the floor like giant post-industrial latex laced snow drifts. It was obvious that nobody in town needed a pair of rubber shoes. They looked like they had been there for decades, the does were pristine while the cardboard around them was slowly decaying.

There was a surprising lack of graffiti. Most of the windows were intact save for a few that had been blown out by a stray rock or beer bottle. There was a large hole in the side of the building opposite the hemorrhaging burp which provided a spectacular view of the city below. The sun was setting through the broken windows and inside the building it felt like one of the last days on earth. We took some pictures and took our leave.

Around the hill at the same level as the show factory there were some two or three other industrial buildings with some other product littering their insides. We opted not to enter any of them and continued climbing to the top. It was worth it.

There was a white geographic marker at the top of the hill placed there by the Spanish government and marked with a plaque informing people that those who would desecrate the marker would be punished under the law. Surprisingly on this hill covered with broken beer bottles, graffiti and abandoned factories this pristine white obelisk was left unmolested. Its was as white as the day it had been painted.

We looked all around us and tried to count off all the other little towns we could see around us dotting up between the vineyards. Each of them were situated around another small hill with the apex of a church rising higher than all of the other buildings. The sun was sinking lower on the horizon and everything was golden. It was a glorious view.

We climbed back down, again past the shoe burp, and down into the narrow streets of the city. We were hungry but too early for a sit down meal. We past several little bars and finally came upon one filled with fresh tapas, good smells, and old men.

We ordered drinks at the counter from a middle aged woman, her three year old son hitting her in her stomach with his fists and throwing a general tantrum behind the counter. I asked her what was good. She gave me an exasperated look that she really should have been giving her son and said everything is good, what do you like? I told her anything spicy and she pointed to the stuffed fried peppers.

These peppers were the first genuinely spicy thing I have eaten since my time here in Spain. They were red peppers that I suspected had at one time been dried but now had been reconstituted, stuffed with cheese, herbs, ground pork, then finally coated in egg batter and fried. There were positively delicious. We ate all of them that she had on hand.

While we were eating, old men kept filing into the place. Wordlessly the bar matron would present them with a drink. All of the drinks were different. She knew each of her patrons preference and served them soundlessly with incredible efficiency for someone who had a screaming three year old locked around her ankles.

The old men obviously knew that we did not really belong to the place and made little jokes to each other about how this was a good opportunity to practice English. They would pass the notion to each other with a little wink and a punch in the arm. Nobody ever approached us and for the entity of our meal we remained nothing more than a mutual curiosity to each other. We ordered more tapas.

There was fried ham stuffed with cheese and skewered pickled peppers with little fillets of anchovy. There were olives. There was tongue that for lack of a better description resembled a somewhat more lingual version of veal scallopini ("look who's talking now?" I ventured in Spanish, but nobody got the joke). We ate and drank our fill, payed our 16 € for everything and headed back to the town square.

We took a table and I ordered an aperitivo. It was the first time I tried "orujo con hierbas" which is a sort of strong grape spirit, not entirely but somewhat like grappa, infused with a bouquet of things that make you hiccup up a bouquet.

About the most remarkable thing to see in the square was the one kid who road his bike around and around the square the entire time we sat there. Up the same curb, around the same set of tables, then down the same curb. Around the streetlight and back again. Over and over again he did this. He resembled some of the caged and pacing animals at the zoo. From the little door where the food comes in to the tree, from the little door where the food comes in to the tree, from the little food door where the food comes in to the tree...it was little wonder that there were people with children and old people. The ones just old enough to leave seemingly had done just that perhaps only to return when they realized just how good they had it.

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September 21, 2007

Los fuegos artificiales y los que no son tan artificiales

Luis needed down time so I struck out on the town myself tonight. I need to start meeting people in order to get myself entrenched a little bit more in the culture so I can make the most of my time here in Spain. It may only be my perception but I have noticed a distinct gap in the age of the people that are out at night. There seems to be plenty of people out in the 20 and under set, the 40 and older set seems to be very well represented as well but where are all the 20 and 30 somethings? It seems as though whenever I do see them they are pushing a stroller and holding hands with two rascally toddlers.

I took the car up to the center of town and circled a bit for a parking spot. It being the last Friday of the Festival of San Mateo there was a high demand for parking and some very creative parking jobs going on. Something that one definitely notices when the come to Logroņo is the number of cars with dented bumpers and scraped up sides. Tonight there were cars on the sidewalks, cars in the crosswalks, and cars in the city parks. I was surprised not to look up and see cars dangling from the balconies.

I gave up hunting after about fifteen minutes of the competing in this creativity contest and decided to try my wallet at the public parking. There are many garages along the main commercial street through town (called La Gran Via), paradoxically most of them were free. I rolled into one near the center of the action and found it spacious, clean, quiet and well organized. I figured it was going to cost me an arm and a leg to go and park there. I made a mental note to save about half my wallet for the end of the evening.

I walked up the street to the old part of town and stopped in a square were a food tasting was going on. Rather quickly I walked up to the busiest stall and asked the woman what I should order. Several people picked up on my difficulty with the language and offered suggestions. Tonight I ate a soup made from pig ears and beans. It was actually quite good! "Good for the blood!" one man told me.

While I was chowing down on a chicken skewer I noticed a sort of grand exodus happening. I decided to wrap up and follow the crowds. After awhile I figured we were heading for the big park on the north side of town to go and watch the fireworks, los fuegos artificiales.

Without embellishing, these fireworks were the finest display I have ever seen firsthand. I have seen big city displays for events like the Forth of July in Los Angeles and in Chicago. I have seen fireworks for big festivals in Japan. However the fireworks tonight really topped everything!

Japan was my old #1. The Japanese approach to fireworks it to amaze you with numbers. They will pull up rows of barges in a harbor and set off synchronized displays of one type of firework after another for what seems like hours. The sky will glow and bang one color after another until you go blind.

The fireworks tonight here were not only numerous, but artful. There was a build up, different moods, a constant consciousness for foreground and background, color and intensity, texture, sound, and even rhythm. A can-can of red to gold color cycling pillars of fire would erupt from the ground while the sky would blossom into bouquets of crimson; then all at once a hundred shells would go up and the red display would end and the sky would fill completely with a new sensation: a million swirling and crackling rockets would expand outward beyond your peripheral vision. They kept up change after change for nearly a solid hour.

Between the oohs, aahs and applause of the crowd I started to notice some people pointing off into the distance. Through the smoke I could make out some dancing orange lights far off in the ravine beyond. The valley was on fire!

It was about halfway through the performance that a real, honest to goodness fire broke out less than a kilometer (map) from where they were shooting off the shells. The show went on as the fire grew and the flames, many times the height of the trees, lapped the walls of the valley. Through the smoke you could make out the lights from firetrucks starting to approach from the city.

It wasn't clear if the fire was started by a stray shell or by human hands. I have a feeling it was arson because the wind was blowing away from the valley and not towards it. I will be interested to scan the local papers tomorrow.

After the grand finale, a synchronized blast of explosives so loud I am surprised that it didn't break windows, I walked back toward my car. Back in the garage I put my ticket into the auto-teller machine and prepared myself for the worst. After all, why would people put up with all that trouble to find a spot unless the municipal ramps weren't terribly over priced? I mean, the ramp was less than a quarter full! People had to be avoided them. How bad was it going to be?

It was all of 2 € for three hours.

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September 20, 2007

Cocaina

There are some days when I am just not that aware of the way I look. I have heard more than a few times in my life, "gee Jordan, you clean up real good." Never in my life would I have imagined to look like a drug addict.

The city of Logroņo does a good job of hiding the real problems of the world beneath a veneer of old people sitting on park benches, bull fighting, and good cheap red wine. People aren't as readily assorted into groups of savory and unsavory. To the uninitiated such as myself all people just sort of look "Euro": they've all got fancy glasses and modern piercings.

Luis is a work-a-holic. I imbibe greatly from the font of occupation, but Luis must have gills. Here in the city, there is one dinner service during the week. If you don't find your one place to eat by 11:00p you likely are going for cold cuts and stale bread. I didn't want any more cold cuts and stale bread.

The boss of the office had told us of a place that serves great "kebabs" late in town. A "kebab" is actually a shwarma or gyro sandwich (sometimes I've even just seen them referred to as a türk!) We received walking directions and set out at about 11:30p.

We had no luck in finding the "kebab" heaven we were promised. We walked a little farther than we thought we should of and ended up on a quiet street in a "kebab" stall with a Latin American man badly shaving pale strips of gyro onto a greasy pita. No thanks. We left and figured that we must have got the wrong place and I offered to stop a local who to inquire which way to the good "kebabs."

The first guy I stopped looked reasonable enough: tall thin, not badly dressed, 20s. I started slowly in Spanish but it seemed he wasn't really listening to me. Were those bags under his eyes? he put his finger to his nose and said, "ŋQuires?" He made a little snorting sound.

I thought he had a little tick or something. I responded, "uh, quiero a comer un bueno kebab. ŋDonde...?" I didn't even get to "donde" before he interrupted me and this time more loudly saying, "ŋQuires?" while touching his nose and making the funny little snort.

Luis broke in and explained in rapid-fire Spanish that we really just wanted a "kebab" but the guy wasn't having it. All I caught was "quires...cocaina" and Luis saying "no, gracias!" The man shrugged his little European shrug and slinked on.

I laughed all the way up the street. Ha ha ha! Cocaine? Do we look like we use cocaine?

Giving up on "kebabs" we stopped at a little bar that served paella. We ordered and sat down. I was still chuckling about our encounter. Luis said to me, "maybe he thought you wanted cocaine because you look really terrible...really sick or something."

I stood up and looked at myself in the mirror. It was true! I looked awful. My hair was unkempt, I had a bright red nose and dark bags under my eyes. It was the face of a terrible head cold, but it might have well been the face of a coke addict with a terrible head cold. I needed drugs, but not narcotics.

Today I look marginally better. Thank goodness nobody has stopped me and asked me if I need anything elicit!

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September 19, 2007

Stirring Up Trouble in Europe Without a Corkscrew

Flying always makes me catch a cold. My theory is that the dry air weakens your body's natural defenses so your lungs may act as a giant petri dish for whatever frightening diseases are being hacked and coughed up by the unwashed multitudes. I wonder in a contest between school teachers, flight attendants, and cockroaches as to who would win for having the strongest immune system? Perhaps that is too cruel. I actually have nothing against teachers or cockroaches.

In the past week I have been on eight different flights. I have been sleep deprived, delayed, and even dropped off on a strange corner by a taxi driver insisting that my new apartment is six blocks from the address I gave him. I am not in my correct state of mind.

I am working on a temporary assignment in Logroņo, Spain. I am living with a colleague of mine who is also new to this city. He is a saint, his name is Luis. In our house there is a patôis of Peruvian Spanish, German, and English being spoken.

Luis has been in Logroņo a full week before I arrived. He did an excellent job beating down the trails to the finding the best walking route to the office as well as finding the best wine that €3 can buy. He also found the way to "el Campo," a giant Spanish big-box style store that is easily three times the size of the largest Wal Mart I have ever seen north of the Rio Grande.

Our apartment is spacious and nice and came furnished but is lacking in many of the essentials. First on Laslow's Hierarchy of Needs is food and we needed the ability to cook simply at home. We filled our baskets with the essentials: things to eat and the tools to eat them. With 10 minutes before the store was to close we had only a few final remaining items to buy on our list, one of them being a corkscrew.

Have you ever had a little cold suddenly erupt into something much more awful? Perhaps even the symptoms of your little cold nearly completely vanish, lulling you into a false sense of security? Then wham! something new and truly terrible hits you?

In the middle of el Campo I felt my head getting light. I felt oddly disconnected from the ground and yet my entire body was acutely attuned to ever part that ached. With poor Luis holding the basket I reached for the 1 liter bottle of olive oil when it slipped from my weakened grasp and broke next to his shoe.

From next to me I hear, "oh great, now I have to clean it up!" The only English I have heard spoken here in the wild as spoken by the Central American worker who was probably doing her final sweep of the last isle before she was to return home to her loving family for a loving meal that evening after working her third shift. I apologized the best I could, offered to help and then got the heck out of her way.

Oil had splashed everywhere. Both of our baskets were covered in the stuff (and not a slice of bread to find anywhere). One of Luis's bright red suede Adidas had become oil-stained (I am trying to convince him to oil-stain the other one to match). When we brought our merchandise to the woman to be rung up, she commented in Spanish, "your things are all covered in oil." I could only reply, "yes, it is true. It was an adventure." She didn't even crack a smile, in fact she frowned a bit and informed me that they don't take American Express.

This morning I missed my alarm on my phone and woke up at 10:30 all pasty-eyed and cold. I felt like I was at the bottom of the ocean breathing a scuba tank full of cheesecake. Today was the day one of the executives flew from the States to see how things are coming. I think I am going to stay in tonight. Too bad I still don't have a corkscrew.

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Welcome to Europe: The Eiffel Tower

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I have arrived in Europe. I have arrived in Logroņo, Spain and will be staying here for at least the next three months. Drop me a line if you are in the neighborhood!

 

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