Giving Thanks

Look, I’m really sorry that I am a Thanksgiving grump. I’m equally sorry that I think Thanksgiving is a total bore.

You should know that I have really tried to like this holiday and sure, I’ve had my fair share of enjoyable orphan expat turkey dinners with friends. But I still just can’t muster up any love for the traditional crappy food that makes up Thanksgiving dinner. The truth is I just hate turkey. It’s just so dry and stuffing, as its name implies, is downright gross. Cranberries? Eh, too sickly sweet. Sure, mashed potatoes are not bad, but Thanksgiving really can’t claim that dish as its own. Pumpkin pie? Eh, take it or leave it.

thanksgiving-black-fridayHowever, despite the fact that I’m not down with the Thanksgiving cardboard-esque grub doesn’t mean I can’t see the value in being thankful and showing gratitude. Even though I always get a little uncomfortable seeing those daily Facebook “today, I’m thankful for…” lists. I’m always so happy to see that someone is thankful for their family, their dog, their commute, their home, their wine, their Starbucks pumpkin spiced double fouble foo-foo, etc.

Anyway, I guess that after the entire November month seeing everyone’s gratefulness trickle down my FB timeline, something has rubbed off on me and I’ve decided to join in the gratitude list making in my own style. This year has been a crazy year full of incredible travels and great news all around so why not show a little gratitude to my adopted country?

Dear Spain,

  • Thank you for teaching me how to roll with the punches

Remember when Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias says, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”? Well, Spain, you and your stubborn ways have often taught me how to cry and laugh at the same time. How many times have I shaken my head in frustration and closed my fists readying myself to stomp on the floor in a holy hellfire southern girl fit only to break out laughing at your absurdity and just soldier on no matter what obstacles you’ve thrown my way? And you know what? Somehow it all just gets worked out so thank you for teaching me not to freak out everytime someone tells me no.

  • Thank you for teaching me to slow down

Okay, you have forced your slowness on me with a maddening indifference unlike any other thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life, but you know what? I kind of like it. Your inability to do anything fast has mellowed me and now, I don’t care how long you take to do anything. Living in Spain has become my natural Prozac.

  • Thank you for showing me how to eat

Madre mia. How in the world did I not realize for all those years how ginormous American portions are? Every time I go back I feel like plates have gotten larger and the amount of food product on top is just horrendous, (and usually incredibly tasty, damn it). Tapas all the way!

  • Thank you for surprising me with your constant beauty

Your art, culture, history, coastlines, mountains, pueblos, landscape, culinary elegance, traditions and those unbelievable, one-of-a-kind magenta and orange swooshy sunrises and sunsets. Spain, your immense beauty feels me with pride every time I see a new side of you. You are incredibly breathtaking on so many levels.

  • Thank you for toughening me up

I now realize that politeness is a double-edged sword. Sometimes smiling patiently works in your favor and other times, it’ll result in your slowly dying from hunger at that table while you politely wait for that busy server to unignore you. Yes, I’m still polite, but just like that 4 foot, 90-year-old señora over there, I will take you down if I feel I’m not getting justice. Complainy bitchiness is not in my nature, but I can sure fake it when I want to put pressure on someone. Good or bad, Spain has taught me that.

  • Thank you for your medical service

Sure, the health system has its pros and cons, but damn, everytime I need something the least bit health related, the system has consistantly surprised me with its quality. Okay, yes, there was that time that that awful gyno threw my pap smear in the trash, but thankfully, after that, it’s been smooth sailing.

  • Thank you for showing me the value of sports

Okay, sure there are many people who believe that football has taken on a ridiculous level of priority. And maybe that’s true to some extent. But, I love the way football brings us all together in some way. I love the way it can serve as a national or regional sense of pride and contention. Forgetting for a moment the famous athletes that seep into our everyday life here, there are some quiet yet amazingly inspirational sport stories out there. Additionally, I have to say that anyone who doubts the power of sports should run/walk in a 5 or 10K sometime here in Madrid. The communal euphoria is overwhelming. Heck, just thinking about the Guiri Run still brings tears to my eyes.

  • Thank you for showing me your strength

It should be obvious that I love this country, but clearly Madrid makes my heart flutter with a borderline obsession. Every time I go out exploring these days, I fall in love just a bit more. Although we’re still weathering the crisis storm, every weekend I’m finding new bars, restaurants, art exhibitions, ferias, sporting events, protests, etc. It shows endurance and spirit and I’m excited for the future of the city. Say what you will about Madrid, but this city has a lot of oomph to it, in good times and bad.

  • Thank you for all the ham

And last but not least – HAM ! Smoky, delicious Iberian ham has simply changed my world.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

 

 

Posted in LIFE IN MADRID | 2 Comments

Kyoto Step by Step: Day Trip to Nara

Nara's MascotRaise your hand if you’ve ever been to a place with bowing, ravenous deer, persimmon-wrapped sushi and a gigantic buddha that sticks his head out the window of the world’s largest temple once a year.

Well, if you’ve got lowered arms, you must get yourself to Nara, Japan.

I found every inch of Japan to be unique and fascinating, but Nara was something really special. We were initially on the fence about going since we were loving Kyoto so much. But the fact that Nara boasts fifteen World Heritage sites changed our mind and I’m so glad it did.

Nara was elected as Japan’s first permanent capital in 710, which is reason for the abundance of temples and Buddhist monasteries. However, soon the monasteries in Nara began to gain a lot of political influence, which seemed to spook the emperor and the local politicians. Subsequently, the Japanese capital was then moved to Nagaoka to put a little distance between the politicians and the Buddhist powerhouse that Nara had become.

Thankfully, these sites still exist and are really worth a visit. Nara is just an hour or so from Kyoto and makes for a great day trip. I have to mention that we took a tour around the city with Nara Walks and I can’t recommend it enough. We were the only ones on the tour that day and our guide, Mayumi, was incredibly knowledgeable and really sweet.

Here are a few of the city’s most fascinating highlights:

Cracker-Addled Bowing Deer

Nara Deer
Too cute, right?

I know. It’s weird and hard to imagine. But the Nara deer population is one of the most intriguing part of this Japanese town. There are around 1,200 Sika deer roaming freely around the town. In the Shinto religion, these deer are considered to be messengers of the gods. These bambis are quite used to people and if you’d like to feed them, there are several vendors in the park that sell crackers. An unbearably cute fact is that the deer will bow to anyone with a cracker as that is the traditional form of greeting in Japan.

But … beware! That cuteness disappears quickly as soon as they get a taste of the cracker. Although not really dangerous, they sure are crazy for crackers and won’t be happy with just a nibble. In a flash, they go for the whole cracker and anything else that might strike their fancy such as your fingers or maybe a nip of clothing while they’re at it.

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The Todai-ji Temple

nara-buddha2While Nara’s claims to Unesco fame makes for a long list, it’s the enormous Buddha located in the world’s largest wooden building, the Todaiji temple, that should be your first stop when visiting Nara. The immense temple was constructed in 752 and has more than enough space for the 15-meter-tall bronze statue that dominates the interior.

Unbelievably, the present structure, rebuilt in 1709, is a only two-thirds the size of the original building. The daibutsu (Great Buddha) contained within is one of the largest bronze figures in the world at just over 16m high and consists of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130kg of gold. In other words, it’s ginormous. During the Todaiji “Manto Kuyo-ye” lantern festival in August, the two small windows are opened and an illuminated Buddha looks out over the large green lawn.

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Kasuga Taisha

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Kasuga Taisha is Nara’s most beloved shrine. Located in a magical old-growth forest, it’s famous for its many lanterns, which have been donated by private worshipers. As you walk to the shrine, 2,000 stone lanterns align the walkway. Once inside the shrine, 1000 bronze lanterns can be found hanging from the buildings (The number 3,000 represents the number of kasuga shrines in Japan).

The lanterns are lit twice a year for the Lantern Festivals in early February and mid August. Among the woods around Kasuga Taisha, there are over a dozen “auxiliary shrines” that are just as beautiful. Walking around this area was certainly one of the most spiritually relaxing things I’ve ever experienced.

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Hōryū-ji

Dating back to 607, the Hōryū-ji is a Buddhist temple used currently as both a seminary and a monastery. The temple’s accompanying five-storey pagoda is thought to be one of the world’s oldest wooden buildings.

Bonus Nara!

Look, I know these Japanese posts are way long, but there was just so much to see and do, I just can’t control myself! Anyway, here are a few Nara extras that I loved:

Okumura Commemorative Museum, Nara Japan
The Okumura Commemorative Museum was a great stop on our tour. Visitors can sit in the earthquake chair that simulates the various tremors of actual earthquakes recorded in Japan. The interesting thing is that you can experience what the tremors felt like before and after certain anti-earthquake materials were installed in the buildings. It’s really kind of terrifying.
Nara Tōka-e
We were lucky to be in town for the Nara Tōka-e, the summer light festival. Over 10,000 candles illuminate Nara Park and the surrounding monuments. So beautiful.
Nara Hotel
While we didn’t stay at the really expensive elegant Nara Hotel, we stopped by for a tea in its beatiful tea room. Built in 1909 for visiting dignitaries, the beautiful hotel has amazing views of the surrounding landscape. It’s tea room is a nice place to take a rest, drink some tea and try some of their incredibly tasty cakes. Past visitors have included Charles Lindbergh, Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller, Audrey Hepburn, and oddly, Richard Nixon.
kaki no ha sushi , nara, japan
It’s an understatement to say that we ate well in Japan. But Nara really surprised us with their elegant traditional sushi. Kaki no ha sushi is a type of nigiri wrapped in persimmon leaves. I guess the leaves have natural antibacterial properties or something. Whatever the reason, it was a truly unique experience.
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Celebrating Madrid’s Beloved Virgin of Almudena

Madrid's Almudena CathedralI have a confession to make:

I really dislike Madrid’s Cathedral, the Almudena.

Actually, I’ve only been inside the cathedral once or twice, but the Neo-Gothic style just leaves me a bit cold and uninterested. Plus, it’s just smashed up against the palace and seems out of place.

However, just because I don’t love the cathedral itself doesn’t mean I can’t respect its patroness, the Virgin of Almudena, right?

And by “respect”, I mean use her as an excuse to stalk some of my beloved Madrid chulapos and chulapas.

Everything is better when you add a little chulapo to the mix, right?

This past Saturday, Madrid celebrated its virgin patroness with a large mass in the Plaza Mayor followed by a procession back to the cathedral. And, of course, any Madrid celebration means chulapos galore, which means that as I was pretending to deeply revere the city’s numero uno virgin, I could also get a glimpse of Madrid’s best dressed revellers.

(See Celebrating San Antonio and Celebrating San Lorenzo for prior chulapo stalking madness.)

La Almudena

Virgen_de_la_AlmudenaFirst, a little history on the virgin. Like myself, there are quite a few legends about her past. One of the most common stories about la Amudena is that before Muslim forces captured Madrid in 712, the locals hid the virgin inside the walls that surrounded the town. In the 11th century, after the recoquisition of Madrid, the Christian soldiers tried unsuccessfully to find the statue. Finally, as they were praying, the part of the wall where the icon had been hidden began to crumble, revealing the statue. Another story says that during the reconquista, a vision of the Mary led the Christian soldiers to the city walls, crumbing a part so that the soldiers could enter the city unseen and reconquer the beloved town. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

The Almudena Mass

And now that you’ve had your history lesson on Madrid’s fav virgin, here are a few photos of the party in her honor. The first part of the celebration was a long, formal mass in the Plaza Mayor. (And no, I was not struck by lightning, you jerk.)

Madrid’s Chulapos and Chulapas

The mass was very nice, but let’s face it: the real party doesn’t start until the chulapos begin to strut their stuff. Once the mass was over, these spunky Madrileños led the procession to the cathedral, followed by various local parochial groups dressed in traditional clothing.

So there you have it: Another Madrid celebration as well as another piece of evidence to add to the file when these people charge me for stalking. I don’t care. If chulapo stalking is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

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Kyoto Step by Step: The Geisha District

Maiko in Kyoto | Pass the Ham

I apologize for my lack of posts about Japan. Once I got back to Madrid, I was so very excited to talk about my trip, and I did talk about it a lot.

However, when it came time to writing about it, I just couldn’t find the time.

Sure, I started out strong with my fabulous visit to the Tuna Auction at Tsukiji Market and even had time to explain in my own sarcastically gracious way how glorious the 2020 Tokyo Games will be.

But, when it comes to Kyoto, I’m really stuck. Sure, I’ve got ten thousand photos, but just the idea of trying to explain even ten percent of Kyoto is overwhelming.

The problem is that once we made it to Kyoto, we we’re just slack-jawed like yokels amazed at everything this traditional Japanese city has to offer. As the Japanese capital for over a millennium, the remaining cultural aspects of that time are just staggering. There are literally thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Kyoto. And our hotel was right next to the Geisha district, Gion, which is just incredible.

Despite the searing August heat and humidity that attacked us relentlessly each and every day, we did our best to explore every aspect of this enchanting area. But, when I try to sit down and convey what I enjoyed most about Kyoto, the part of my somewhat intelligent and fairly creative mind used for writing just drifts  back to Kyoto’s incredible wealth of visuality.

In fact, the last time I sat down to commit myself to writing about Kyoto, I was so word stunted that I started a poem:

I don’t know where to begin with Kyoto,
but I do have many a photo,
The quintessential Japan,
its way big on traditionaaan.

Master poet, heh?

As you can tell, poetry is not my forte. So as a way to get going, I’ve decided to start a step-by-step guide of the city to keep my thoughts somewhat organized and show you how we began to explore this exquisite city.

Ahem, ready class? Let’s get started:

First Step: The Gion District

Arriving to Kyoto, we headed almost immediately to Gion, the traditional geisha district. Although we learned that the preferable term in Kyoto is geiko or maikos, which are geikos in training. I’m not really going to go into the geiko theme too much here. Only to say that we saw a few maikos and yes, they really can stop you in your tracks and they really do move with an incredible agility. One moment you hear the sandy click-clock of their getas and just as you turn around to get a look at these incredible women, poof, they’re gone.

I should tell you what is repeated to tourists over and over again in Kyoto: these beautiful enigmatic women are a little sick and tired of being stalked by curious onlookers and it’s best to not suffocate them like paparazzi if you see them walking down the street. I tried to be as respectfully discreet as possible.

Geiko - Kyoto

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Hanami-koji and Gion Corner

To start exploring the geiko district, you’ll probably want to walk down Gion’s main street, Hanami-koji, and ohh and ahh accordingly at the wooden houses and many ochaya (teahouses) lining the street. Hanami-koji in KyotoOn the corner, you’ll see taxi drivers lined up in front of a large red building. This is the Ichiriki Chaya and it’s one of Kyoto’s oldest tea houses.

And for you wanderers out there, this is where you want to toss the map. Strolling through the main street is wonderful, but it’s even better to take off on your own and get lost meandering along the narrow side streets. Even for the most cynical traveler, Gion will have you romantically drifing back to another era.

If you continue all the way down Hanami-koji, you’ll come to Gion Corner, where for a very reasonable fee, you’ll be able to catch a nice show about the important aspects of Kyoto tradition. Is it for tourists? Certainly, but it’s well worth it. For about an hour, you’ll be introduced to some of Kyoto’s traditional customs that you’ll be hearing about as you explore more of the city. The performance is broken up into seven performances: the koto-zither (a six-string instrument), chado (tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arranging), bunraku (puppet theater), kyogen (comic plays) and Gagaku, (traditional music played for the royal court), and kyo-mai, (traditional maiko dance).

Kyogen theater_ Gion Corner, Kyoto

Gion Corner, Kyoto

koto-zither _ Gion Corner, Kyoto

Gagaku dance | Gion Corner Kyoto

I loved this little introduction to Kyoto and highly recommend it. My favorite part was the kyo-mai, the traditional maiko dance:

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Second Step: Shirakawa

Once you finish exploring the main area of Gion, it’s imperative that you make your way to the Shirakawa area. Adjacent to Kyoto’s Kamo River, this was probably my favorite part of the city. Strolling under the weeping willow trees, passing by the traditional wooden ochaya and listening to the babbling Shirakawa Canal, this area gives new meaning to the term, “ethereal beauty.”

And I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself, but once again, this area really makes you feel as if  you’ve stepped back into another time. In fact, most visitors probably feel as if they’ve stepped into a scene straight out of Memoirs of a Geisha, which is appropriate considering they filmed a large part of the movie here.

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Geisha District, Kyoto

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So, as always, these photos and my words don’t really do Gion much justice. Gion, along with most of Kyoto, is one of those places in the world that is so uniquely special and exploring it is likely to leave you speechless, in a good way. Words, as they often do, fail me when it comes to describing indescribable beauty, but I’ll leave you with this quote about Kyoto to make up for my ineptness:

“I loved the quiet places in Kyoto, the places that held the world within a windless moment. Inside the temples, Nature held her breath. All longing was put to sleep in the stillness, and all was distilled into a clean simplicity.” ― Pico Iyer, novelist

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Segovia, Take Me Away

I’m guessing most of you are too young to remember the “Calgon, take me away” commercials. For those post-seventies babies, it was a t.v. commercial for Calgon bath foam. Rather frustratingly typical for that time, it showed a woman just so overwhelmed with noises of traffic, her boss, her baby and her dog, that she pleads to her Calgon to take her away in the form of a nice bubble soak:

So, okay, maybe I don’t sit in traffic most days and I certainly have a unique gift for easily tuning out bosses, babies and barking dogs, but damn, I still have those days when the Internet is being mean and work is frustrating and I’m about to explode because the world seems like it’s rapidly twerking its way towards a fiery hell of vicious ignorance.

And when I get to that point, I simply say to the husband, “Take me to Segovia.”

And this is why Segovia is my “take me away” place:

Segovia's aquaduct
Every time I see Segovia’s aqueduct, I just want to throw my arms around it and sob, “I’m home, cariño.”
Segovia_cathedral
Seeing Segovia’s Cathedral bursting from the corners of the Plaza Mayor makes my heart happy.
Segovia's Alcanzar
Little known fact: the lawn under Segovia’s Alcazar is the absolute best place on earth to have a picnic.

 

Juan Bravo statue in Segovia, Spain
This statue in Plaza de San Martín is dedicated to Juan de Padilla, Juan Bravo and Francisco Maldonado, the Comuneros who tried to take on Carlos V. And it’s not that the statue makes me so happy, but the famous Segovian photographer along with the saxophonist and his dog that hang out here feel like distant family members at this point.
Segovia_veracruz
The Vera Cruz church sits quietly at the base of the Alcazar and is just so small and lovely that you would never know how important it is. Built in 1208, its design was inspired by the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and is one of the most stunning examples of Romanesque architecture in Spain. I just love its unassuming sophistication.
Isabel's Coronation, Segovia, Spain
Segovia is where Isabel’s coronation took place in 1474. Anyone else into the series? The Segovia tourist office offers a very in-depth tour based on the history of the devout Queen. It was so interesting that I started watching the series and I’m totally hooked now!
Ham Slicing in Segovia
Forget what I said about the other historical stuff above, just know that food in Segovia is the number one reason for visiting. I’m a José Maria fanatic myself, but from tapas to cochinillo, Segovia has it all. On our most recent trip, I guess they knew I was coming and they appropriately served raciones of ham in front of the aqueduct to celebrate my arrival.
(Just take a look at the faces on the guys in the background. Drool much, tios?)

So, there ya go: Segovia is my “take me away” place. How about you? Any special place you like to hide out on the weekends?

Posted in LIFE IN MADRID, Spain | Tagged , | 4 Comments

There’s Really Nothing to do in Tokyo

Well, here we are. Just hanging out not celebrating Madrid’s 2020 Olympic bid. Oh well, what are you gonna do? At least when you’re feeling down, Madrid always has a way of lifting your spirits, right? I mean, if you’re feeling stressed or down in the dumps, you can always … um, I don’t know … have a relaxing cafe con leche in Playa Mayor to soothe your disappointment?

Anyway, congratulations to Tokyo, a great city, but you know what? There’s really not that much to do in Tokyo. I mean you could visit some stuff, of course, but everything is kind of mediocre. It’s a good city if you’re into temples, architecture, fish markets, culinary exquisiteness, kabuki theater and festivals, green parks, great people, tradition, etc. Other than that, Tokyo has nada…

For starters, there’s no real architecture to speak of:
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kyoto castle

Seems like no one likes to exercise:

exercise in ueno park, tokyo

There’s no real respect for history or tradition:

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And I don’t know, but the people on the street don’t seem very interesting. I mean, they certainly don’t seem fun, sophisticated or lively with a real zest for life:
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Tokyo Dance

Tokyo Dance

Tokyo Dance

So, I don’t know. I guess if you’re into culture and tradition and all things that make a great city great, sure, Tokyo may be for you. And okay, the 2020 Olympics will probably be stellar and incredibly incredible beyond belief. If you’re into that type of Olympic games…. whatever.

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Why I Support EuroVegas 2016 (Revised Post)

EuroVegas Madrid

*On September 18, 1990, my mama woke me up for GED program way earlier than usual and I was certainly not happy about it. In fact, I was shocked when she flipped on the light in the trailer because it seemed as if I had just gone to bed a few hours ago.

I don’t remember what time it was exactly, only that it seemed like insane o’clock.

When I glared at her somewhere between angry and frightened, she said, “Look, hun, you gotta git your butt otta bed, ya hear? Mama need some cigs.”

Blinking the sleep out of my eyes and the fog out of my head, I shrugged and hazily mumbled, “Mama! I’m sleepin’! Damn it to all good hell! Why didn’t you buy them cigs at the Piggly Wiggly when you got off work?”

“Don’t you sass me, youngin’!”she muttered, “Now get up and take me to the store, damn it.”

I pulled myself out of bed and slapped on my best daisy dukes and tube top and grabbed the keys to our beatup pink camaro. Even though it was early, I was always pumped to drive mama around. Since she had gotten her 15th DUI, I had been driving a lot more these days. Cruising down the trailer park in the early morn, yo!

But this time was different. We didn’t head down to the Seven Eleven like normal, mama told me to keep going into town. I thought it was strange, but she was in one of her manic states so I didn’t push too hard.

“Where we going, mama?”

“Well, they got a special extravaganza going on at the 24 hour Bingo Bonanza tonight. First place prize is a 50 pack of Marlboro Reds and a visit to the all-you-can-eat flapjack bar.”

We arrived at BB (Bingo Bonanza) and to my horror, it was packed. Seemed everyone this side of the Mississippi had put in their best teeth and headed down to the old Bingo saloon to vie for their chance at 1000 smokes and a visit to flap jack heaven. It was gonna be a long night.

Once we got in, we quickly sat down and mama lit up her last cig she had been saving for hours. “Git otta here with that stick, ya old dummy!” I recognized that gruff old voice immediately as grandma’s. Grandma was never one to miss a sure thing or a flapjack opportunity. She had wheeled herself and her oxygen tank down from the elder home and the tank was right next to mama’s chair. Explosion was certainly imminent.

“Shut up, ya old hag!” Mama and Meema had never seen eye to eye since mama had stolen Meema’s husband, Bobbie Mack oh so many years ago. No, not my grandad, if that’s what you’re thinking, you sicko.

Mama and I found new seats away from Meema so we could keep the peace. We didn’t want to be thrown out again. Once was enough. I’ll never forget Big Berta, the bouncer at Bingo Bonanza, throwin’ mama out by her hair last year. Ripped out her best scrunchy with the hair attached. Mama had to wear a bandage wrapped around her head for weeks! Anyhow, Mama and Berta made up over a bottle of Wild Turkey one night, but things had never been the same between them. There was a lot at stake that night and we didn’t want to rock the boat. We certainly didn’t want to spoil our flap jack dreams.

I was surprised at how many people had come out to the smokes/flapjack bingo that night. Pure dedication, I guess. People really love them some flap jacks, you know? And that’s the thing about gambling. People might think it’s just throwin away your money on dreams, but they just don’t understand. Gamblin’ is all about faith.

Anyway, once the game began, I’d done forgot about the prize and started looking at how many people were squeezed into BB’s that night. I mean, the best thing about Bingo Bonzanza is the sense of community you get once you start playing. People think gamblin is all about money, but they just don’t get it. Gamblin’ is all about community.

A sense of faith and community is just what Madrid needs, isn’t it? Sounds nice right about now, doesn’t it?

Well, mama wasn’t payin no attention to the community, that was for sure! But, she was concentrating on rubbing her special troll doll, Gigi. The raggedy old hair had just about fallin’ out from so many fruitless years of bingo playin’, but mama still had faith in that old troll. “Life is all about believing in something”, she always said. And that night, she believed that them cigs and flapjacks were hers.

And wouldn’t you know, twenty minutes into the first round, mama screamed out, “Sweet baby Jesus! Bingo! I got bingo! Oh, holy hell, I got bingo! ”

I couldn’t believe my ears! Mama had hit the bigtime! When Big Berta came over with that cotton candy pink lipstick smudged all over her good tooth like always and confirmed that mama had legit bingo…

…the crowd exploded.

I saw tears streaming down mama’s face as we jumped and high fived and hugged and then high fived and jumped some more with all of the people around us. Everybody in the Bingo saloon was celebratin! Even Meema was doing wheelies! There were fist pumps and tears and strangers embracing and kids dancing and all kinds of hootin and hollerin. Besides the two Bubbas that almost shot each other because they’re still beefin over something, it was one hell of a celebration!

It was an odd feeling because I had never really put a lot of thought into what my flapjacks meant to me. Hell, I didn’t even really think that much about bingo. But right at that moment, I found myself … well, jubilant. Yes, certainly, “jubilant” describes that night perfectly.

When mama and I sat down and began our 3rd plate of flapjacks, we just sat and smiled at each other. Through the thick smoke engulfing her face as she scarfed down another mouthful, I could recognize a distinct pride in her that I had never seen before.

That type of gambling pride may not live with you on a day to day basis, but when you hit bingo, you feel it. I was so proud of my little old mama for going the distance, for the determination to win those cigs, and most importantly, for sharing her flap jacks with me.

When I think about EuroVegas, I think about my mama stuffing her face with flapjacks and simultaneously sucking down a whole pack of Malboros that night.

So, go head and call me a blind, sentimental optimist, but I’m proud of Madrid for bringing Eurovegas to the city. And even if they don’t add bingo to the slots and the poker tables and all the other “fancy” games, I’ll still be proud. I just hope someone thinks of serving flapjacks as a prize. They’re darn good!

(*This bit of satire is based my last post about the 2020 Olympic Games for those new to the site!)

Posted in EVENTS IN MADRID, LIFE IN MADRID | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Why I Support Madrid 2020

Madrid 2020 Logo

On September 18, 1990, my father woke me up for school way earlier than usual and I was certainly not happy about it. In fact, I was shocked when he flipped on the light because it seemed as if I had just gone to bed a few hours ago.

I don’t remember what time it was exactly, only that it seemed like insane o’clock.

As I glared at him somewhere between angry and frightened, he asked, “Want to do something cool today?” Blinking the sleep out of my eyes and the fog out of my head, I shrugged and hazily mumbled, “sure.”

I got dressed, ate a little breakfast and started to wonder what was up. Both parents wore secret-sharing smiles, yet they refused to tell me what this “cool” something was.

As we began to drive in the opposite direction of school, my curiosity really got the best of me. Where in the world were we going so early? Soon I realized that not only were we not headed in the direction of the school, but we were, in fact, headed downtown! Downtown Atlanta!

Once we turned off the highway onto the famous Peachtree Street, I was buzzing with excitement. Downtown cruising on a school day in the dark early morn’, yo! I knew it had to be something special. It was still dark and a bit nippy out, but I soon noticed that the streets were curiously packed with people.

As we zipped down Peachtree, my eyes lit up when I finally took notice of the banners lining the streets, “The Olympics?” My father smiled and said, “Yep! Today’s the big day, kiddo.”

Dad had decided that, no matter what, we would be watching the live announcement of the 1996 Olympic Games location with the thousands of other crazy people in downtown Atlanta that morning.

Once we found our space in the crowd, it seemed like forever as we waited through the entire ceremony. We painfully watched every single video from the competing cities (Atlanta, Athens, Toronto, Melbourne, Manchester, Belgrade). By the time they got to the actual announcement, the crowd had swelled to an impatient mass of buzzing anticipation.

And finally, at that moment I will never, ever forget, they said,

“The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic Games to the city of …………. Atlanta.”

And the crowd exploded.

I saw tears streaming down my father’s face as we jumped and high fived and hugged and then high fived and jumped some more with all of the people around us. We were all family at that moment. There were fist pumps and tears and strangers embracing and kids dancing and music and noisemakers, and man, it was one hell of a celebration.

I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live. There really are no words to express how happy I felt that they had chosen Atlanta. It was an odd feeling because I had never really put a lot of thought into what my hometown meant to me. Hell, I didn’t even really think that much about the Olympics. But right at that moment, I found myself … well, jubilant. Yes, certainly, “jubilant” describes that moment well. Seems appropriately southern enough, at any rate.

And yes, maybe the Atlanta Olympics weren’t the best games ever held. They were great up until well, that bombing was certainly horrible. Damn it.

But, the truth is that I remember the morning of the announcement way more than any of the actual Olympic events. That bursting pride was something so very distinct and completely new to me.

Over the last week, I’m starting to relive that moment again in the days before the 2020 Olympic announcement. And I’m thinking of my father who’s not around anymore and how damn proud he would be of Madrid for me.

City pride may not live with you on a day to day basis, but when your city gets it right, you feel it. I was so proud of little old Atlanta for going the distance, for the work they put into the campaign, for representing our city in a positive light.

A positive light.

Seems like a long time since we’ve had one of those in Madrid, huh? A positive light sounds really good about now, doesn’t it?

Will Madrid be chosen for the 2020 Olympics? I don’t know, but I hope so. And you know what? Take your cynical shit and your negativity and throw it out the damn window for just one day. No, supporting the bid doesn’t mean we have to ignore the multitudes of problems in this country. At this point, that would just be ridiculous to even try. But rather, just for a short period of time, lets recklessly give in to the glimmer of light that maybe exists somewhere down the road. Let’s try and show that Madrid and Spain are more than this damn crisis. More than the greedy, filthy, corrupt politicians. More than the excruciating unemployment.

Because the fact is that Spain, as I think most of you would agree, is way more than its current state of being.

So, yes, I’ll be thinking of my father this Saturday as I head out to watch the announcement. And you can bet that I’ll be trying not to cry the entire time as I think of our special Olympic morning.

Go head and call me a blind, sentimental optimist, but I’m proud of Madrid and if we don’t get chosen on Saturday, I’ll still be proud. And you know what? I’ll still be just as supportive of the city the next time when we go in for another beating. Because, as ornery as she is, Madrid just doesn’t give up. And neither should we.

Posted in EVENTS IN MADRID, LIFE IN MADRID | Tagged , | 4 Comments

A Guide to the Tsukiji Market Tuna Auction, Tokyo

Has anyone else felt the need to take a Valium after buying a guidebook?

Japan Guide BookI mean, I’ve bought guide books before (and yes, I still buy guide books before each trip. And no, I’m not your grandma, you jerk.) but I’ve never felt this feeling of being overwhelmed by the country itself.

Well, that is until I bought a Japan guidebook before my two week adventure.

Within two minutes of reading it, I thought, “Holy crap, there’s a lot to do and see. I’ll never have time to see it all. Then, I’ll have to leave the country without seeing it all and then, some jerk will say, ‘did you see this’ and I’ll have to say, ‘no’ and then, I’ll convince myself that I didn’t see anything worthwhile. Then, I’ll regret not seeing that thing for the rest of my life. And then, that one thing will hang like a dark cloud over all of the cool things that we did see just knowing that we didn’t see that one thing and then, the world will just end suddenly and I will have never seen that one thing. ARRGHHH!!!!”

Goodness, I’m weirder since we last met, huh?

Although it would be impossible to see all of this country in two weeks, the things we did see were amazing. Besides the temples, the shrines, the Zen, the culinary excellence, the architecture, the religion, the Buddhism, the deer, the local festivals, the crazy transportation systems, the bento boxes, the heat, the food, the food and the food, it was the Japanese people that impressed me the most.

I know I was only there for a short period of time, but Japan struck me as a society deeply rooted in profound respect. Is it a respect for life, for tradition? Am I reading too much into it? I don’t know, but the truth is you can sense a certain sophisticated, yet quiet pride when walking around Japan. And although we certainly had a language barrier, everywhere we went, people were so helpful and respectful, at times quite funny and charming and damn it, Spain, why do you have to be ornery all the time?

Day One: Tsukiji Market

Although I could go on and on about my current Japanese culture crush, I’m going to delve right into my Japan recap with our visit to the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, Tsukiji Market.

While markets aren’t my thing normally, we really wanted to see the famous tuna auction. The problem is that A LOT of people want to see this auction, but it’s only open to 120 visitors a day, broken up into two groups of 60.

Although Tsukiji Market is a popular landmark for the city, the workers have complained recently about so many tourists walking around and interupting the flow of their very frentic workday. And it is crazy busy in the market, mainly because of the frantic bicyclists and zooming turret trucks that are charged with the responsibility of getting to their destination quickly without running over clumsy, camera wielding goofs from all over the world.

Watch em go:

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A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

The Tuna Auction

The auction runs every day except Sunday, every second Wednesday and some holidays. The kicker to visiting the event is that it starts at 5:30 a.m., but it’s highly recommended to be there between 4:00 and 4:30 a.m.

Yes, 4 o’clock in the morning, people.

One reason for this absurdness is that although 120 people are allowed to witness the auction, there are divided into two groups. It’s first come first serve and you certainly want to be in the first group because there is some sort of hierarchy system and the serious buyers bid for the best tuna first. I’m supposing that the second group just gets to see the auction of a few minnows or something of the sort.

We decided to use our jetlag to our favor and rise and shine early the morning after we arrived in Tokyo. We took a reasonably priced taxi to the market and arrived at the market at about 4:10. Believe it or not, we were the last people in the first group, so my advice to you is to definitely get there early!

The worst apart about the early arrival time is the waiting time before the auction starts at 5:30. Once you’re in your group with designated vest color, you basically wait for another hour and a half before the auction begins. Bring a book or something because there’s really nothing to do. And you can’t wander around the market at that time. And the only thing to eat or drink is from a vending machine and everything is in Japanese. I bought a seaweed flavored hot chocolate drink by mistake. Yum.

Visit to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo
First arrivals get the yellow vests. Blue arrivals get the shaft.

Once they usher you into the auction area, the whole thing only lasts about 10 minutes. There are two or three auctioneers shouting and multiple people bidding. I really wish I could have understood the prices that were being paid for the tuna. Besides the auction itself, the most interesting part for me was watching the buyers inspect the tuna bodies, which were treated with the utmost respect.

No, I’m just kidding. They were treated like the expensive frozen slabs of fish they are. This is a huge business in Japan (The fist tuna of 2013 was bought for $1.7 million!), and despite the controversy of blue fin over fishing, it’s pretty clear from the solemn aura in the auction that there is no room for sentimentality here at Tsukiji. It’s all business.

Well, that or they just hate goofy tourists.

A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

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A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo
Ummm…1 million or 2 today?
A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo
Slim pickings after the first auction. If you go, try to get there early!

After the auction, a handful of restaurants open in the market. You’ll see Japanese people lining up at the best places so you might have to wait a bit. Have you ever eaten sushi at 6:30 in the morning? With a beer, to boot? Well, since we had woken up so early, it already seemed like lunch time at that hour and once we got seated at a little sushi restaurant, it was the most amazing sushi of my life.

I really wish I had taken photos of our sushi, but it always feel sort of rude to do that in an intimate restaurant, you know? So, I’m sorry for the lack of photos, but take my word for it: the sushi at the Tsukiji fish market is the best, ever, ever in the entire world. No other sushi I’ve ever had even comes close to the paradise I put in my mouth at that small, unassuming sushi bar. In fact, afterwards, I really had assumed that I would never eat sushi again; it was that good. But that idea only lasted until we got to Nara, where I had the most beautiful nigiris wrapped in persimmon leaves.

But, I’ll have to save that one for another day and another post!

Tsukiji Market Information:

Posted in Japan, TRAVELS | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Dear Flamenco Dancers

My dearest passionate twirlers and tempestuos stompers,

Many years have passed between us, haven’t they? I often think fondly back on our introduction and that slow flirtateous way we came to know more about each other over the years. Although, I guess “each other” may not be the correct way to describe it now, would it? I mean, all this time, our relationship has been about you and nothing but you.

Yes, your selfishness has been overwhelming at times, blurring our relationship at each dark encounter, literally. Do you know how hard it is to watch your fiery passion hypnotise crowds of strangers while I sit quietly so very frustrated, wondering what I did wrong? All these years would it have been that hard for you to see me waiting patiently in the darkness? Waiting for you, just once, to take notice of my needs.

The blurry one-foot is my speciality
The blurry one-footer is my speciality

I find it dumbfoundingly ironic that Spain has taught me so much about patience over the years, yet, you, my little Spanish emblem, have usurped all of that. You’re too damn fast and I’m too damn slow and that just kills me. Why is it so damn hard for you to just “pose it” for a little bit longer, heh? Do you know how much restraint it took not to scream out loud, “Hold that swirl, girl” one show after another?

Well, it doesn’t matter anymore because I’ve finally had it. I’m dumping your little shimmying culo, permanently.

Don’t bother arguing – you know it’s for the best.

I mean, do you have any idea how many damn blurry photos I’ve taken of you over the years? Your stomping is too fast and your twirling, swooshy movements are simply unattainable. Yes, feel free to prance around all you want, but it’s still too dark and you and your little swirly friends are just too nimble for me. And don’t even get me started on your vacillating hand movements. Flirty and mesmorizing? Yes. Easy to photo? Hell no.

Do you know what’s its like to be reminded of the acrid taste of photo failure, time and time again? Have you not seen me, time and time again, sitting patiently with my camera at hand and my eager glare silently begging the Flamenco Gods, the Photography Gods, the Lighting Gods, and those stubborn F-stop Gods to let me take one damn photo that comes out halfway decent?

Why did you have to be so damn passionate, so dramatic, and just so damn flittery, all this time? We could have really made a great pair, you know that?

Well, it really doesn’t matter now. Thanks to you and your clickety clack crap and your damn flouncy volantes, I’ve finally given up on us. These are the last photos I’ve taken of you and I hope you choke on them. Yes, I know, once again, they’re quite blurry and romantically dark, but I really feel that captures our entire relationship perfectly.

With these photos, my little Spanish tornado, I bid you farewell because I will never, ever try and take a damn flamenco photo again.

Besos,
Hamatha
Flamenco Dancers, Spain
Flamenco Dancers, Spain

Flamenco Dancers, Spain
Flamenco Dancers, Spain

Flamenco Dancers, Spain

Flamenco Dancers, Spain

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Posted in LIFE IN MADRID | Tagged | 7 Comments