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Spotted on the poshest shopping street in Madrid, calle Serrano…

What? No ball-gag?

What? No ball-gag?

The best bit was the very elegant mother next to me, saying to her five year-old, “What a scary teddy”! Oh, and how…

For some people, winter is the season that is the most difficult. For many who suffer from depression, spring is their nemesis. (Hence “April is the cruellest month”?)

For me, it’s fall. I’m almost always struck with nostalgia, and a desire to go somewhere — anywhere — other than where I am. Even living in a city I love as much as I do Madrid, I find that my feet are getting itchy.

Where would I go? Good question… being as close as I am to North Africa, a Bowlesian interlude is one possibility, assuming that it is still possible to live as they did way back when. Or perhaps to the Central Coast of California, where the summer gloom should have loosened its grip by now. Looking back at the photos I shot when I lived there, there is certainly plenty to recommend. All of these were taken around this time of year…

Little Sur river at Andrew Molera State Park.

Little Sur river at Andrew Molera State Park.

November sunset at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

November sunset at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Point Lobos whaling station

Point Lobos whaling station

Giant kelp at Lover's Point beach

Giant kelp at Lover’s Point beach

In the time I’ve been away from the blog, I’ve confronted an expensive feline medical emergency, watched a gig that was going to pay the rent disappear, attended an arbitration hearing about a big wad of fraudulent phone charges that I’ve been fighting for almost two years, and dealt with all manner of minor to not-so-minor annoyances. In other words, I’ve been living, albeit a bit more grumpily than usual.

ultreyaI also spent a few days out on the Camino de Santiago with a friend who walked 242 kilometers of it in celebration of a milestone birthday — I caught up with her for the last 35 km, which she graciously divided up into smaller chunks than she’d been doing. Even though I’d been walking as much as I could around Madrid in the run-up, I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been — I hadn’t been out in my boots or with a loaded pack, which makes a big difference in the training process. But the goal was modest, about 12 km a day, so I figured what the heck, at least I’d see what the fuss was about. The important thing was sharing the experience with her, being part of her celebration.

The first day out, we walked from Villafranca Montes de Oca to San Juan de Ortega. It’s just a hair over 12 km between the two villages. But the hike out of Villafranca is seriously uphill — you gain a lot of altitude in a fairly short stretch, so I was huffing and puffing like the Little Engine that Could. Once you’re up there, it’s walk, walk, and walk some more (it’s more common along the Camino to come to a village about every three km or so, where you can have a rest/snack/drink/pee). You see a bend in the trail ahead and think there’s going to be a view, only to find there are more trees and another hill. My friend said, “Here’s your trial by fire, kiddo.”

And it was — in good way. Because even though my feet were about ready to roll up into little balls by the end of the day, I was reminded of something important as I trudged along. Just like in life, once you set out on the Camino, the only way to go is onward. Past the annoyances, past the disappointments, and past the doubts. Even when you think you can’t take another step, you do, because you know that eventually you’ll get to where you set off to.

Something else happened on the Camino. I got hooked. I’ve decided that next spring I’m going to do the Burgos to León stretch. They tell me it’s flatter.

Hello again! Here’s a little glimpse of what I got up to during the first bit of my European vacation, in southwest France.

Headquarters, near Aubeterre-sur-Dronne:

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Me, outstanding in the field (of sunflowers next door):

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Essential equipment (granted the water only came up to my chest, but combined with a very tall Campari and soda, it was the refreshingest thing around). And it was HOT — 37C or so, humid as heck, and no appreciable decrease in night-time temperatures. A couple of nights I considered sleeping in the pool, but was concerned about meeting up with the resident viper. (As my Dad pointed out, when it’s warm enough for them to move, they’ll get out of the way, but when it’s dark and cool, not so much.)

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Aubeterre, tiny, but chock-full of interesting sights:

Looking across to the Chateau (privé, alas, so not visitable)

Looking across to the Château (privé, alas, so not visitable)

The charming Dutchman who ran the rent-a-vintage-Citroen operation.

The charming Dutchman who ran the rent-a-vintage-Citroën operation

 

Detail of a capitol, Church of St. Jacques (Romanesque)

Detail of a capital, Church of Saint-Jacques (12th c.)

Street scene near St. Jacques

Street view near Saint-Jacques

The underground church of St. Jean (12 c.).

The underground church of Saint-Jean (12 c.).

Some of our day trips in the area:

Barbezieux, 19th C. commercial propaganda still visible -- the ground floor still houses a clothing store.

Barbezieux, 19th c. commercial propaganda still visible — the ground floor still houses a clothing store.

 

Shelling beans on the stoop, Barbezieux

Shelling beans on the stoop, Barbezieux

Blanzac-Porcheresse

Blanzac-Porcheresse

 

Fresco (detail) in Saint-Arthémy  (12th c.), Blanzac-Porcheresse.

Fresco (detail) in Saint-Arthémy (12th c.), Blanzac-Porcheresse.

Sainte Jeanne d'Arc, Saint-Arthémy church, Blanzac-Porcheresse

Sainte Jeanne d’Arc, Saint-Arthémy church, Blanzac-Porcheresse

 

Cressac, Templar Chapel (12th c.)

Cressac, Templar Chapel (12th c.)

Cressac, fresco (detail) in the Templar Chapel (12th c.)

Cressac, fresco (detail) in the Templar Chapel (12th c.)

Condéon, windmill (restored, 19th c.)

Condéon, windmill (restored, 19th c.)

Chillac, Saint-Sulpice fortified church

Chillac, Saint-Sulpice fortified church (12th c.)

Château de Chillac (private, and guarded by a large but not that fierce-looking toutou)

Château de Chillac (private, and guarded by a large but not that fierce-looking toutou), 15th c.

 

Berneuil, Notre-Dame

Berneuil, Notre-Dame (12th c.)

The sweetest toutou ever! En Berneuil

The sweetest toutou ever! En Berneuil

Passirac, Saint-Pierre church (11th c.)

Passirac, Saint-Pierre church (11th c.)

Gravestone, Saint-Pierre church, Passirac

Gravestone, Saint-Pierre church, Passirac

Cognac, Château François 1er

Cognac, Château François 1er

Cognac, on the banks of the Charente. The Porte Saint-Jacques is on the right.

Cognac, on the banks of the Charente. The Porte Saint-Jacques is on the right.

Cognac, 18th c. graffiti, left by Irish prisoners taken during the Seven Years' (French and Indian) War. They were held in the Chateau where Francis I was born, in a hall designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

Cognac, 18th c. graffiti, left by Irish prisoners taken during the Seven Years’ (French and Indian) War. They were held in the Château where François Ier was born, in a gallery designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

 

Voeuil-et-Giget, Romanesque church w/ 19th c. excrescence

Voeuil-et-Giget, Romanesque church w/ 19th c. excrescence (see Périgueux, below, for more details on the origin of this carbuncle)

Minou en Voeuil-et-Giget

Minou en Voeuil-et-Giget

 

Dad's candidate for the ugliest church in France (Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens), Allemans

Dad’s candidate for the ugliest church in France (the Romanesque, Gothic, 19th c. excrescence-laden Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens), Allemans

Périgueux, Cathedral of St Front. The 19th c. towers are the work of Paul Abadie, who was the architect of Sacre Coeur de Montmartre, Paris. These onion-dome doodads were stuck onto perfectly good Romanesque churches throughout the Périgord and Charente.

Périgueux, Cathedral of St Front. The 19th c. towers are the work of Paul Abadie, who was the architect of Sacre Coeur de Montmartre, Paris. These onion-dome doodads were stuck onto perfectly good Romanesque churches throughout the Périgord, Dordogne, and Charente. It was a genuine fad.

 

Périgueux, Vesunna Tower (Roman, 1-2 c.)

Périgueux, Vesunna Tower (Roman, 1-2 c.)

Périgueux, Place de Navarre

Périgueux, street view near Place de Navarre

 

Minettes en Périgueux

Minettes en Périgueux

 

Brantôme, Benedictine abbey

Brantôme, Benedictine abbey, founded by Charlemagne in the 8th c. Current building dates from the 15th c. It sits next to a canal that the monks dug to keep themselves apart from the townspeople! (Interesting to note that the original monastery was sacked by Vikings who had managed to sail up the Dronne from the Atlantic. They were everywhere!)

Water jousting, Brantôme

Water jousting, Brantôme

Escargot in the garden after a rainstorm -- too beautiful to eat. (Plus you can't make a meal out of just one.)

Escargot in the garden after a rainstorm — too beautiful to eat. (Plus you can’t make a meal out of just one.)

Another escargot who was much too pretty to eat.

Another escargot who was much too pretty to eat.

 

Next up: Bordeaux (hic)

 

 

 

It is said that one day while walking in the country, a whiff of goose poop sent Carl Jung whooshing back into his past. I’ve had those olfactory memories, too. I think we all do, don’t we? It may not be goose poop that sets them off, but in my case, a freshly manured field will do.

The sounds that are connected to memory are perhaps less clear. If we live in a city, even if they are still out there, will we hear them? Even though I live on a quiet side street, there is still plenty of noise during business hours (and after, but that’s another post).

That’s why I was delighted this morning to hear the strange, slightly discordant three-note whistle that announces the knife-sharpener is on your block. This recording was made in Seville, and the progression of the notes is slightly different, but you get the idea.

I hadn’t heard it since I lived here back in the 80s, and even then it seemed anachronistic, like the butane man’s cry of “Bu-ta-nooooooo” that let you know you could get your cooking gas cartridge changed. Still hear that one from time to time, too, though most of Madrid is either on electric or natural gas now.

Given the current economy, people who fix stuff are doing well — because it’s generally cheaper to repair than replace — and I have a feeling that the knife-man is among them. Next time I hear that whistle, I’m going to take my three kitchen knives down and have them seen to.

Are there sounds that take you into the way-back machine?

In Spain, store brands/generics, are known as marcas blancas, or “white brands.” The packaging isn’t the stark black and white that this would suggest, and in general, what’s inside is just as good as the expensive stuff.

But not always, as I was reminded last week when I bought a box of white brand cereal. Cereal is one place I usually splash out for the name brand (the name being that of a certain Midwest Cereal Tycoon whose brother believed that eating corn flakes would keep people from being prone to sexual desires). But the store where I shop had inexplicably stopped carrying it, and I didn’t want to make a separate stop just for a box of cereal. Oh, I should have. The generic stuff inside was grim, grim, grim. Think Soviet version of American cereal. But since I, like my pal CF, am a Person Who Does Not Waste, I ate the whole box anyway. When I finally got into a box of the real deal, I nearly wept for joy.

The experience, combined with this morning’s pressing need to make a shopping list, got me wondering about just what percentage of my grocery spend is on store brands. As I looked in the fridge and cupboards to see what I needed, I noticed just how much of what I buy falls into the cheap-o category. Here’s a brief sampling (brief, because I’m guessing you may not be as interested in this as I am — if you are, feel free to ask me for the full breakdown): mineral water, table wine, milk, juice, yogurt, flan, cold cuts, spread-y cheese (like Boursin, only softer), toasted rolls, digestive biscuits, olives, pasta, lentils, popcorn, tuna, canned tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar…

As for name brands, they are few and far between, and they are there because nothing else tastes as good: mayo, pesto, marmalade, cereal (natch), mustard, rice (yes, it makes a difference), Wasa crisp…

I also found this interesting on a larger scale, because the trend among consumers in Spain is to buy more and more store brands. This is, of course, because of the ongoing crisis — sometimes the difference in price is huge (an example: store-brand plain Greek yogurt, 150 g: 90 cents; Danone plain Greek yogurt, 150 g: 1.70 euros) — and people need to stretch their budgets in ever more creative ways. As a result, some of the big brands, like the ones under Proctor and Gamble’s umbrella, are running ad campaigns aimed at convincing consumers to come back to the fold. I’d like to see the results and to know just how effective these are proving to be. My guess is that they’re not making much of a dent. People are just too worried about the economy right now to splash out an extra euro or two on a long list of staples.

The trend is note-worthy, too, because Spanish consumers have long tended to prefer name brands. When you consider that there have been a number of food scandals here — the rape-seed oil tragedy being the most serious, although later investigation has shown that it probably wasn’t due to contaminated oil at all — buying name brands wasn’t just a guarantee of food tasting good, it was a guarantee of not poisoning yourself and your family.

Where do you fall on the spectrum? Mostly name brands? Mostly store brands? Or somewhere in between? I hope you’ll join the discussion in the comments. I’m off to do the shopping.

 

I’m not a big one for resolutions, as I know too well, from my own experience and from working as a coach, that changing one’s habits is a difficult proposition. (Especially when it involves things like eating, sleep, or exercise.)

However, I like doing things that are new — any time of year — and January is as good a month as any to add the fun of a new project or pursuit to a stretch of weeks that can otherwise feel like a slog in the Northern Hemisphere.

And so it is that I’ve started a couple of new groups to share with my friends, and as a way to make new friends. One is the latest incarnation of the Stitch-and-Bitch groups that I end up forming wherever I live, so I can hang out with (and enable the yarn habits of) other knitters. The other is something I’m thinking of as the Sunday Lunch Club.

Sunday can often feel like a loose end, especially in Spain, where it’s generally the day to have lunch with your family (parents, grandparents, et al.). For those of us without extended family close by, it’s nice to have Sunday lunch with our “selected family” (i.e., friends) — I’m proposing finding one Sunday a month, with hosting/cooking duties to rotate among those of us who want to participate. But nothing more formal than that, so it doesn’t feel like a “have to.” (Have to + Sunday doesn’t compute for me.)

What new pursuits and projects are you adding to your life for 2013? Please share in the comments.

(As in, my holiday was belated and so I’m just updating you now.)

As many of you know, I Am Not Mad About Xmas. All of that forced togetherness (and its polar opposite), institutionalized cheer, and overindulgence… let’s just say I tend to approach the winter holiday season with all the enthusiasm one reserves for dental work.

Add to the sense of impending doom the fact that both parcels mailed from the U.S. failed to turn up in time for Christmas, New Year’s OR Epiphany (one is, in fact, still among the missing — and both were delayed between New England and New York, not on this side of the Atlantic), and you can see why I was a fairly Grinchy Rubi.

To my surprise, I did have a good Christmas, regardless. I spent Christmas Eve with a friend’s family, who even had a few gifts for me, despite my not knowing them until that evening. Ihad Christmas Day lunch with another friend, and went for coffee and pastry with still more friends after lunch. New Year’s was quiet, but fun. I was kissed by a “camel” and I found the “figurita” in my roscón de reyes on Epiphany morning, while breakfasting with a friend. All in all, a very enjoyable holiday run.

Balthasar always was my favorite.

Balthasar always was my favorite.

One box of presents from the States plus my Reyes present from a dear friend here finally showed up today. I hauled them to Mr. Pants’ house so I could open them with company and then hauled them back home. The other box should be here sometime next week, we hope.

Best of all, Zouzou likes her present, very much indeed. She’s practically living in it!

A cave fit for a queen!

A cave fit for a queen!

I hope you all had the holidays you needed, not the ones you expected, and that 2013 is off to a good start for you. If you need me, I’ll be here on the sofa, under my new blankie.

Spotted in the home decor outpost of a famous Zpanish chain. (Hint, hint.)

Should we file this under Lost in Translation? Or is it part of the overall, “All is forgiven, please come back” scheme?

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I’m guessing “Happy Chrismachanakwanza” didn’t fit.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in Madrid in August, and I’d forgotten how much of an adjustment one has to make to compensate for the small businesses that shut down.

Yesterday, I ran down to the mom and pop grocery store to get some bread for lunch — it was shuttered. I had Wasa crisp with my pisto and fried egg.

Today, I popped around the corner to have my eyebrows threaded — they’re looking like blonde caterpillars — and, yes, the salon was shuttered. Thank goodness I’m spending the weekend with a friend who’s always been a dab hand with tweezers!

From the local bar, to the florist, to just about every small business around, the conversation is, “When are you going on vacation? For how long?”

It reminds me of a long-ago August that I spent in Paris, house-sitting for Mme. C, and the panic that ensued when I realized that *none* of the shops I knew from my time living there were open in August. At least Chez Pitz had a sign indicating which nearby bakery was still turning out fresh loaves! (It used to be a law — don’t know if it still is — that bakers in a given neighborhood couldn’t all go on vacation at once, so as not to leave the locals bread-less. So reasonable!)

Of course, freelancers don’t have vacations, so I’ll be right here, creeping along in the heat with my wooly eyebrows and indifferent bread!

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