5.20.2013

random notes from madrid

If I get a decent sleep one night, I'm not allowed to have one the next. Apparently it's a new law: no sleeping two nights in a row. So since I'm awake at 5:00 a.m. again, here is the latest round of notes I've been collecting in my notebook.

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When you drive on the highways in Spain, you see these giant billboards of a black bull. There are no words on them, just a huge shape of a bull. There's one on the cover of our Lonely Planet guidebook: here. I thought there was only one of these and it was famous. Turns out they are many of them.

Googling "giant bull billboards in Spain", I learned that these actually started out as advertisements, but are now a public-domain symbol of Spain. This Wikipedia page explains how the government of Spain banned all highway billboards (wow!), but how a court decision kept these wordless symbols on the road. I also found this: Catalan separatists want them gone.

On the road from Cordoba to Madrid, we also saw the same type of giant billboard of a man wearing a sombrero and toreador jacket with a guitar, and a giant Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on their horse and burro. These are not nearly as googleable as the giant bulls.

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We have seen several huge wind farms. The mountain and hill ridges are often lined with giant wind turbines. I couldn't help but think of Don Quixote's windmills. La molina is used as a symbol everywhere - on wine labels, for example.

We've also seen at least one huge concentration of solar power panels.

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Another thing I've seen, on the outskirts of every city so far: unbelievably dense concentrations of high-rise housing. The buildings are grim concrete masses, grouped very close together, and so many of them, in huge numbers. We saw this outside Paris, Barcelona, and Madrid, and on a smaller scale outside Cordoba. I think it must be public (social) housing. A lot of it, very ugly, and very isolated - well out of the life of the city, surrounded by highways. On the one hand, at least it exists. On the other... very sad.

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In Madrid, as in Barcelona, we are staying at a hotel called a "hostal". I haven't figured out the difference between a budget hotel and a hostal. Here in Madrid, the room is as very comfortable and clean, and small, but not tiny. Every room in the hotel has a private bathroom, there's wireless internet throughout, and a parking garage. So what makes it a hostal and not a hotel? Perhaps the absence of a bar or restaurant? The Wikipedia page for "hostal" is not very helpful.

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There are Irish pubs all over Spain, calling themselves "authentic Irish pubs," and advertising not only Guinness, but Murphy's. (Allan always points them out to me, because I love Murphy's.) In Barcelona, I thought the pubs might cater to a large ex-pat community, but we've seen them in every city so far. No idea why.

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A double room - una habatacion doble - is two single beds. One shared bed is una habatacion matrimonio. In addition to that amusing idiom, there is one long pillow that runs across the whole bed! It's annoying. Just because people share a bed doesn't mean they have the same pillow needs.

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Throughout our trip, when I ask for information or conduct a little transaction, there is a similar pattern. The person seems aloof or unfriendly (but who knows, they may be being polite according to their cultural norms). I speak in my slow, halting Spanish - using the more formal usted, and I smile - and they quickly become more helpful, often switching to English, or at least simplifying their Spanish, and by the time we are finished, they seem very helpful, warm, and friendly. I've gotten used to this.

And I observe how the tourists (usually Brits or Australians) who speak only English and make no attempt to say one word in Spanish never see this friendliness. In general I am often horrified by the way tourists treat hotel and restaurant staff. Allan says this is getting to me too much, both in person and online when I am checking out hotel reviews on Trip Advisor. One line in a hotel review summed it up for me: "To all you people complaining that the hotel staff doesn't speak English: LEARN SOME BASIC SPANISH. You're in Spain. Don't you expect people to learn some English before they come to the UK????"

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We fly home one week from today. Still to come: great paintings in Madrid, a Roman aqueduct in Segovia, cave paintings (I hope) in the north, the Bilbao Guggenheim, the Guernica peace museum, and hopefully some great Basque cuisine.

3 comments:

James Redekop said...

Eddie Izzard has a joke about Continental vs. British attitudes towards learning second (or third or fourth) languages: He was in the Netherlands and asking a hotel concierge if he spoke English. "He looked at me as if I'd just said, 'Can you count to three?' and said 'Of course'."

allan said...

Seriously. Bilingualism seems to be so common in the European countries I have visited, and speaking three or four languages is not unusual.

For tourism, though, I think the rule of thumb is: make the effort. Learn how to say please and thank you, learn how to ask for and get directions. I mean really, how difficult is that.

allan said...

Uh... that is me, Laura. Currently signed in as Allan.