Happy Frixuelos Day

Frixuelo is the Asturian word for crêpe or thin pancake (tortita), and so today being 40 days before the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, I made frixuelos for breakfast for Belén and me. Asturians are rightly proud of their culinary delight and I have been lucky to have had a few already at the As de Picas restaurant in Gijón and at our regular Sunday family meal, courtesy of Belén’s sister Paz’s husband Avelino (cuñado). It may be hard to give up for Lent.


Lent is that holiday in Western Protestant tradition where we give up things (probably because of the Puritan influence on early American life). We give thanks at Thanksgiving but don’t party like its 1999 at Carnival like the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese world does. At Carnival or Mardi Gras (literally fat Tuesday), where perhaps following the Jewish tradition of “sealing up” the leaven at Passover, we eat all the household fat in one big binge and then repent until the Easter Rising (an altogether different rising in Ireland, the land of puns and literary turns of phrase).

So what will I give up? I can’t give up chocolate, it’s too much a part of our lives. Belén and I have both happily inherited a chocolate addiction from our mothers. I think I could give up chocolate if it wasn’t always in the house, but there’s the rub—it always is. And if it’s there, I’ll gobble. Abstinence in this case does not make the heart grow fonder. Alas, I can’t deny Belén. She organizes our weekly shopping around which place has the best chocolate – Lidl hands down.

No, I have decided to give up swearing for a month (well for 40 days until the Rising). I really do swear too much, although in my defence I swear only at inanimate objects (e.g., computers and cars that cut in front of me). All I want from a computer is repetition, but when it doesn’t do what it did the last time, the time before, and every bloody time before that, the colourful excuse-my-French comes out. I’m sure more than one neighbour has wondered about my sanity. As for the cutting-in-front-of-me cars, what’s your fuckin’ hurry? Get a life. You sit on top of one of the pinnacles of Western civilization (and its downfall but that’s another story). You’ll get there faster than your grandfather, I assure you, so chill. Eat some chocolate.

And, sadly, I have decided to give up writing a regular Caracola. Not too many people are reading it anyway, well, not according to the number of comments or lack thereof. Not that it’s about numbers in a Benedict versus Francis way, but I had hoped for more of a discussion, some of YOUR thoughts. Thanks to Craig, Isabel, Maribel, Elena B, Terri, and the four obvious link lovers for your comments so far. No thanks to the 6,299 other Spam machine comments. Come on “Nice read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that topic. And he just bought me lunch since I found it for him and it made him smile. So let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch!”* with a link to a whiskey company. What the f*?k?

Happily, I now understood that a blog is a diary, so it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to change the world with my posts, but this particular work in progress (me!) is progressing. I reread my own posts to remember where I was and how I learned and who I met along the way. I also understand Eamon Ryan’s comment more intimately now about half of all blogs are read only by the writer. Yeah, it’s a diary. And as I wrote in Do The Math!, contrary to the great Levitt and Dubner in their fascinating Freakonomics, more writers make less criminals. Write on! In fairness I have been busy writing CounterPunch articles too, which thankfully are being read.

One thing I have learned is how much I haven’t missed my own culture. Maybe that’s a function of age. Maybe it’s because I have access to regular English and English-language culture, what with the Internet, the New York Times, my regular Skypes home to my mother, and the biweekly quiz at the Blue Sky Café quiz. But also, my Spanish is improving. We saw our first Spanish movie together with no subtitles, the charming and funny Living is Easy with Eyes Closed (Vivir es Fácile con Los Ojos Cerrados), which took home the Goya for Best Picture. I don’t know if it merited Best, since I haven’t seen enough Spanish cinema, but it was good, even if [*** Spoiler alert ***] the girl didn’t get the guy in the end. In Hollywood, the girl always gets the guy, even if she was – in a frankly misogynist way Mr. Trueba – the only character whose eyes didn’t get opened.

But I also don’t miss the Oscars (now that’s a real fix-uelo), late-night talk show irony (are than any other kind?), rush hour, Guinness, snow, … I don’t even miss baseball, having agreed to help out with a local team here, though with the rain I haven’t made it out so far.

So, fewer Caracolas, and perhaps more diary entries for me. I can happily write about the steel business, a trip to the mining museum, the best restaurants. Tell you what, if you request it I will. Otherwise, I am happy as a frixuelo doing my own thing. And to you, dear, gentle reader, Happy Frixuelos Day, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras. Hopefully, we’ll all be better for the rising.

* Edited slightly for clarity, because, well, a machine wrote it.
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Spanish influence on English and the English in the New World

Undoubtedly, Spanish began mixing with other languages the moment Christopher Columbus landed in the New World (October 12, 1492 in the modern-day Bahamas), giving us new words by the boatful. By the time the Spanish met the English in what would become Florida, Texas, and California, the mixing was in full lather.

Columbus BarcleonaWater04

Early Spaniards brought us words for pants (pantalones), rodeo (rodear to round up), bonanza (good weather or prosperity). Other words let their mark such as tapas (tapa means cover), bodega (a wine cellar), peón (day labourer). Not to mention the many food words: taco, fajita, enchilada to name a few. Burrito is literally “little donkey,” where the diminutive ito (or ita) makes the donkey (burro) small. Hence Juanito (little Juan), Conchita (little Concha), and Coronita (little Corona, literally little crown). Note, the diminutive follows gender rules, where ito is masculine and ita is feminine. Interestingly Corona is the name of a beer as marketed in the U.S. and Mexico, but is known as Coronita in Spain.

Margarita (tequila, Cointreau, and lime with a salted rim) means daisy, with many stories suggesting its origin, from a drink named after the Zigfield dancer Marjorie King in 1938 to a later American drink, the Daisy, which substituted tequila for brandy. Tequila, the essence of Mexico, is alas tequila (Nahuatl: the place of harvesting plants), and is the first North American distilled drink, originally called pulque and made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant. A few decades after the Spanish arrived, pulque was distilled as tequila. Piña colada is much simpler and means strained pineapple.

Many other words have Spanish origins or have been distilled through their own Spanish New World mix. Salsa is sauce but in English is a dance. Cucaracha or cock roach is a traditional Spanish folk ballad (a.k.a. corrido) that became popular in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. A cojón is a ball, but in the plural as cojones means balls and has become known as a kind of Spanish chutzpah. A guerrilla is a street fighter from Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, ultimately giving us the word for a guerrilla or partisan war. Guerrilla uses another Spanish diminutive illa, in this case a little war (guerra). Thus camilla, for example, which means stretcher is literally little bed (cama).

We also have many city names in the southern United States to help recall the early Spanish settlements; most famously Los Angeles (The Angels), but also Las Vegas (The Valleys), Los Alamos (The Poplars), and Albuquerque (White Oak; albumen is white and quercus is oak from the Latin). In California, there is Salinas (salt works), Caliente (hot), Sacramento the capital (sacrament) as well as a multitude of saints, including San Diego (Saint James), San Francisco (Saint Francis), and San Antonio (Saint Anthony).

One can probably guess that Florida comes from flower (flor is flower), and thus it isn’t much of a stretch to guess that Nevada comes from snow (nieve is snow, nevada is snowfall) or that Arizona has something to do with arid zone (arid zona is dry place). It was the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon who named Florida Pascua Florida after landing there on Easter Sunday, 1513, looking for the famous fountain of youth. Pascua Florida means “Flowery Easter” after the Spanish Easter celebration “Feast of the Flowers”. Fortunately, there were flowers in abundance and the name stuck.

Across the border, there’s Tijuana, which doesn’t come from a conjunction of Ti and Juana or Aunt Jane as the local myth goes, but from the aboriginal Kumeyaay word, Tiwan, meaning “by the sea.” Other familiar Mexican cities have aboriginal meanings, such as Acapulco meaning at the big reeds (in Nahuatl) and Cancún meaning “gold snake pit” (in Mayan).

In the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, Spanish names also abound: Trinidad (trinity), El Salvador (the saviour), Puerto Rico (rich port), Costa Rica (rich coast). My favourite is Antigua and Barbuda (old and bearded). Some countries though were named after people such as Bolivia (Simon Bolivar) and Colombia (Christopher Columbus).

To be sure, the Spanish language has filled the New World, thanks originally to Christopher Columbus and his search for the East in his three revolutionary caravels. Having previously impressed the Portuguese King John II with his “industry and good talent,” though not enough to secure a paid voyage to the new East, it was the Spanish and not the Portuguese who would reap the financial and linguistic success of Columbus’s sighting. It would be another Italian, however, sailing for Portugal whose name would ultimatley ignite the world.

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El Camino de Santiago and The House of Words: Finding our pasts together

El Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James is a pilgrimage begun in the 9th century to bring European Christians to the last resting place of St. James, believed to be in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, northern Spain. St. James was one of Jesus’s twelve disciples and considered to be the first martyred apostle, beheaded by King Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem AD 44. How his remains ended up in Galicia or whether they are in fact there is anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, The Way soon became the most popular pilgrimage in all of Christendom.

CatedralSantiago SdCBelen

Fast forward more than a millennia and it seems The Way has become too popular with over 200,000 people from almost every country travelling along its route, up from a “few hundred people a year in two decades.” In “Trampling the Holy Path,” Carmen Pugliese wonders if not all are there for spiritual awakening, stating that “The Camino de Santiago is not a trekking route and its essence needs to be maintained so it is not cheapened.” As with all good tourism, it seems The Way has become spoiled by its own success and the infrastructure is suffering. The end point of the pilgrimage (which for the true pilgrim starts at the French border) is the cathedral in Santiago, which needs €6.7 million in reparations. Apparently, walking and talking away one’s troubles has a price.

There are various routes one can take to the cathedral through eight historical Spanish regions (Aragon, Navarre, La Rioja, Burgos, Palencia, León, Lugo, and Santiago de Compostela). The traditional starting point is at the French border, although one needs only travel 100 km by foot or horseback (or 200 km by bike) to receive an official ecclesiastic certificate. The way of the pilgrim (or peregrino) is marked by scallop shells, a traditional food of northern Spain and Christian symbol. You’ll see the scallop shell signs along roads and beaten paths indicating the best routes and pointing the way to the thousands of hostels and pensions, where you can get a bed, a meal, an official stamp, and if you’re lucky a shower. These aren’t Holiday Inns for just any old peregrino. Searching one’s soul, finding one’s way, or just shedding a few pounds comes with a bit of effort.

In The House of Words, Suzy Quest, four-time New York State Scrabble champion and freelance book editor, is on another kind of journey when she makes her way with her boyfriend James Graves to Santiago de Compostela looking for her long lost father. After striking out in London where he worked 20 years previously, she’s hoping a tip from a London publisher will lead her to where he has been hiding in northern Spain and reunite them at long last. It is possible, however, that he’s a deep-cover spy, which would explain his mysterious lifestyle, though not his disappearance from her life.

TheHouseofWords SdCJohn

Can we find what we’re looking for in a pilgrimage, renew ourselves, learn about our limitations, fears, strengths, goals? Find what’s missing? Is our journey like Odysseus’s, cast into the wind trying to find our way home or back to a past we know? Literature and life are full of life-changing peregrinations from Pinocchio to Dorothy from Andy Dufresne and Ellis Redding in The Shawshank Redemption to any number of cheesy Julia Roberts/Mathew McConaughey Hollywood romcoms.

Whether a New Year’s fat-reducing gym or The Way and the search for a father – the ultimate search for the creator – all our quests help to advance our lives, that never-ending work in progress, walking away our doubts, discovering ourselves in a vast ocean of thoughts as we leave the modern complications behind. I’m not worried that more and more people want to find themselves on The Way – I wish the world could walk The Way – I’m worried it will be cheapened by Holiday Inn, McDonalds, American Express, those whose aim is to cheapen the spiritual with the monetary, turning our simple adventure into their quest for money. Nothing ruins a good thing like success.

John K. White, author of The House of Words (Tuttle House, 2013), and the upcoming sequel, Solomon Sings, due out October, 2014.

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Modern Government – Love and toys for all?

Spain is a constitutional monarchy with 350 members (or deputies) elected every four years to the Congreso de los Diputados located in its capital Madrid. There are two main political parties, the right-wing Partido Popular (People’s Party or PP) which currently has a majority of 185 representatives while the left-wing Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party or PSOE) forms the main opposition with 110 seats.

Other smaller parties include the two main separatist groups, the Catalan separatist party Convergència i Unió (Convergence and Union or CiU) with 16 seats and the Basque separatist party Partido Nacionalista Vasco (Basque Nationalist Party or PNV) with 5 seats, as well as various others comprising 34 members, including United Left and Amaiur (another Basque separatist party).

SpanishFlag SpanishCongress

As leader of the PP majority party, Mariano Rajoy is the prime minister of Spain (also confusingly known as the president of the government). The leader of the main minority opposition is Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the general secretary of the PSOE. Juan Carlos, as king, is head of state, tracing sovereignty to Philip V, the first Spanish Bourbon (Borbón) king, who came to power in 1713 by the Treaty of Utrecht after the War of the Spanish Succession, which was fought to limit the power of a united French-Spanish Bourbon grand alliance.*

Spain is a relative newcomer to democracy, achieving modern electoral freedom in 1976, after the death of its dictator Francisco Franco (self-styled as Generalisimo). Franco had overthrown the previously elected government of the Popular Front (a coalition of various left-wing parties) in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), a bloody conflict that took the lives of as many as 500,000 people.

The Spanish Civil War is still remembered today by those seeking to learn about loved ones who disappeared at the hands of Franco and his Fascist usurpers. In some ways, the Spanish Civil War was the de facto start to World War II, although the Allies were not formally drawn into the conflict by any pacts as they were three years later in Poland. (France and Great Britain purposely avoided entanglement with Nazi Germany and the USSR in the peninsular premamble to world conflict). It was certainly a training ground for Hitler and his gang of thugs.

Its defining moment was immortalized by Picasso in his iconic 11-by-20-foot Guernica, his homage to the barbarism of war, which he created for the 1937 Paris World Fair after the indiscriminate bombing of the defenseless Basque town Gernika.** Outraged by the tyranny in his homeland, Picasso never returned to Spain, requesting that his masterpiece be shown there only when democracy was restored and the country was once again allowed “public liberties.” After more than four decades in New York and other exhibitions around the world, Guernica was brought to Madrid, first to the Prado on September 10, 1981, and then soon after to the Reina Sofía, where it now permanently resides.

The fledgling 1976 democracy was strengthened by the once and future Borbón king, Juan Carlos, Franco’s chosen successor, who instead chose to step aside and give the people of Spain their say, rekindling Spanish democracy. Spain’s entry into the league of modern nations can be traced to the day Juan Carlos upheld Spain’s democracy – June 15, 1977. There have been a few hiccups since, but Spain is now a fully paid-up member of the capitalist world order with the fourteenth largest economy as well as one of the most heavily indebted.

But just what kind of democracy exists – neo-conservative, neo-liberal, social democrat, socialist, names variously used to describe today’s democracies? Most of Europe fancies itself as Social Democratic, either of the tried-and-true German variety – requiring strong leadership to enact its economy first, social progress next ideals – or the French model, remarkably being nudged now by its president, François Hollande,*** from traditional Socialism to a centrist path. To be sure varying degrees of laissez-faire neo-conservatism and so-called “third-way” neo-liberalism.

However, with its calls against separatism (particularly in Catalonia), watered-down women’s rights (especially anti-abortion), restrictions to public demonstrations, and attacks against everyday worker rights, the Spanish government could be attempting to rekindle its own idea of a Christian, authoritarian, me-first society. But in fact, Spain is rather more like most governments; business-run elites, where corporations call the shots on major economic policy. In Spain, 20 people hold as much wealth as the poorest 20%, almost 3 million live in dire poverty, and major multinational tech giants pay little or no tax.****

Indeed, a country with 26% unemployment (40% youth unemployment) while enjoying one of the largest tourist economies in the world (with over 60 million annual visitors) and the largest wine-producing capacity in the world is barely disguised as a democracy, even if its electoral future is secure (a minimal criteria of a democracy). Unable to solve crippling economic problems, the path of most modern democracies today is to turf the ruling party out and hope the next crowd will do better, thus ensuring a flip-flop of PP/PSOE governments in the coming years. To be sure, all politicians’ careers end in ruin. But a whole new way of thinking is needed to decide what democracy really is and what indeed constitutes a nation. 20 people equal to 20%, 3 million in dire poverty, 40% youth unemployment, crippling national debts are no way to live.

I wonder what the Cubist master would have said of our newly fragmented society where so few have so much and so many nothing. Part millionaire Communist playboy, part pacifist conscience for a shockingly over-militarized world, part artistic saviour consecrating hope after having destroyed it, one wonders if even Picasso could bring light to the new madness. We now take such crass indecency for granted, while so-called democratic governments continue to heap austerity on those who can’t cope, never mind restricting women’s rights, allowing bankers to run amok, or even renaming its central square after a mobile phone company. The truth is democracy has been sold to the highest bidder.

Would that we could repel the “ocean of pain” that has become modern democracy, nascent or otherwise? We need more than “love and toys.”

* The treaty gave Spain the king it wanted but lost some of its empire including Gibraltar.
** On April 26, 1937, 5,000 bombs were dropped by German and Italian planes in a surgically precise calculated wave of terror that brought destruction to the undefended town. Almost 1,700 people died.
*** Note the timing of Monsieur Hollande’s sexploits. Misdirection at its best.
**** “Wretched of the earth,” Lluís Bassets, El País, January 24, 2014. “Three million Spaniards now live in dire poverty, says Cáritas,” Alejandra Agudo, El País, October 10, 2013. “Rampant Inequality: Whose World is it Anyway?” John K. White, CounterPunch Magazine, Vol 21, 1, February, 2014.
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Top 10 things to know in Gijón (out and about so far)

I have been here for almost 6 months, so I hope I have a few ideas now to help visitors or those planning to live here.


1. Weather

Think Ireland only warmer, typically 5-10 degrees warmer at any time throughout the year. It can get cold in the evenings in December and January (0-5°) and thankfully not too hot in July and August (25-30°). Asturianos think it rains here, but having lived in Ireland I don’t see much difference, though the rain isn’t as soft. It doesn’t disturb daily living much, although that same seamless grey sky lingers during winter. The green is just as spectacularly green.

2. Getting there/short hops

There are direct foreign flights only from London and Paris and only on Friday and Sunday (roughly €300 return). The airport is in Avilés, a half-hour drive away from Gijón. There are direct trains daily from Madrid, letting you off in the centre of the city. The train station isn’t something to write about, but it is clean. The north coast main highway (Autovía del Cantábrico) passes by Gijón, making it ideal for short visits to Santiago de Compostela and Bilbao. Check out the Gijón Tourism blog for more.

3. Food

I don’t know every great value for money place yet, but we’ve been to a few to give you a start.

Mesón de Sancho has the best beef, and is the closest you’ll find to UK/Irish or North American steak house quality. It’s very small and intimate with only 5 tables in a balcony at the back so you have to book. They specialize in carne a la parrilla (grilled meat) and the waiter will charge you only for the wine you drink. For me that was more than half-off a lovely bottle of Rioja.


For a burger, try La Buena Birra, a sports and beer bar. There’s usually a football match on. Vor Bier & Bar on Calle Prendes Pando is more intimate and has the best beers on tap. If you want sushi, try Burasari Terrace in Somió. There’s a lovely downstairs bar for a pre-meal drink and an elegant upstairs dining area. Wok King is low end with an all-you-can-eat €12 buffet, but they have sushi and if you want sushi ….

There are lots of restaurants with a great menú del día throughout the city centre (el centro) and beyond. They put the menu up outside, so you can check before you enter. We’ve been to Taberna del Piano with its spectacular view of the sea, La Tasca de Cabrales with its own wine brand and mouth-watering desserts, and La Farola near the Plaza Mayor which has a fabulous paella for a menú del día (Ask the waiter for a better wine than the house brand. You might just get it included with the right smile.). The Casino de Asturias has a restaurant inside called As De Picas (Ace of Spades) which is more elegant than your regular menú del día (ask if they have frixuelos for dessert!). Order a drink in the café/bar and you’ll get the best pincho in town included – a few of those is almost a meal in itself. It’s a good idea to book since it’s popular for those who know. There are many places to choose from and if you like seafood, you’ve come to the right part of the world.

“Pincho Alley” (El Carmen) is a good place to start any evening. You can sit outside and drink and sample tapas and pinchos. Start at Calle Cervantes and Calle Felipe Menéndez and walk and eat. When it comes to food I am learning that the secret is to eat slowly. Savour. Enjoy. Es sabroso. The proof is in the eating.

Casino de Asturias: As De Picas Calle Padilla, s/n. 985 35 11 11

La Buena Birra Calle San Bernando, 87. 684 61 64 23

Burasari Terrace Avenida Dionisio Cifuentes, 128, Somió. 985 331 258

La Farola Calle San Bernardo, 2. 985 172 543

Mesón de Sancho (Especialidad en Parrilla). Calle Begoña, 18. 985 35 99 73

La Taberna del Piano Calle Cabrales, 12. 985 345 085

La Tasca de Cabrales Calle Cabrales, 41. 985 17 18 13

Vor Bier & Bar Decano Prendes Pando, 29. 984 29 08 82

Wok King Marqués de San Esteban, 34. 985 35 4 365

4. Local transport

A bus ticket is €1.25 and the bus driver will change notes up to €10. I found out the hard way when I tried to pay with a €20 note. Thankfully, another passenger came to my assistance. You can check out when the next bus comes via mobile phone by sending a text to 217213 with the message “Emtusa pxx” where xx is the stop number. The system is quite good.

5. Media

The local Asturian papers are La Nueva España and El Comercio. National papers are El País, ABC, El Mundo with varying degrees of political slant.

The three main channels are RTVE, Antena 3, and Tele5, although I can’t make out much distinction between them yet (quality or politics). There are movies on every night on La Sexta and Paramount Channel. Use the subtitle option to help the language learning or version original if desired.

6. English news

I have found two shops for the New York Times (formerly the International Herald Tribune), which also sell various UK papers (Daily Mail, Financial Times): a small news shop on Calle Menéndez Pelayo called El País and another smallish news and sweet shop at the top of Paseo de Begoña called Favila. Although of late, the newspapers have been sold out when I get there by late afternoon. Must be a few other info-junky ex-pats who have scoped out the news shops already (also a good example of a classic inflationary economic system with too many people chasing too few goods, though the price remains 3€).

7. English-speaking friends (or for slower spanish)

You’ll find lots of ex-pats at The Blue Sky Café, where a number of English teachers from nearby schools hang out. You’ll find locals from England, Canada, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, …. There’s a language exchange on Thursdays and an English-language quiz every other Friday.

8. Specialty shops

You can buy some specialty drinks at El Gallego. It’s on Calle Begoña, practically next door to Mesón de Sancho and beside El Trompetista, which bills itself as Rock & Roll, Food & Drinks. Our next stop.

Never mind the show bottles in the store window,* you can get your rare item here. La Puerta del Sol at the bottom of Parque Begoña also sells rarer alcoholic things.

Tiger around the corner has greeting cards for only 50 cents (the best price I’ve ever seen) and a ton of other cool knick-knacks. There are Chinese-run shops everywhere, where you can get almost everything from plastic mobile protectors (which the proprietor will gladly and painstakingly apply for you – a good idea since it ain’t easy) to batteries to knock-off childrens’ football jerseys (at a tenth of the price) and a whole lot better than having to go to Alcampo or El Corte Inglés for the simpler stuff. For food, Mercadona is better than Día which is better than Familia. Alcampo has everything, but is a bit far (and beware their supposed special offers).

9. Entertainment, Cafés

We saw The Goggles a great 60s knock off band at Tom Corless’s. They play occasionally around town and are always great fun. Check out their website for further dates. Bring your dancing shoes. The Pumarin Sur cinema is run by the city and has great rep and alternative films. An essential cultural source and definitely not your usual fare. Check out their agenda to see what’s on.

My favourite café is Saroma at the top of Paseo de Begoña on Calle Menén Pérez. I buy the paper in the Favila news agent around the corner and relax there with the best café con leche grande (Ana Botella would be proud). You can get your own ground coffee to go as well. Café Dindurra is a landmark but alas is currently closed. Check out Jose Manuel Montes’s blog for some very cool photos though.

10. Sidra

Of course, no Gijón top 10 is complete without sidra. See my previous caracola: Asturian Cider Stories and other Gijón Excursions. It would be indiscreet to pick a favourite. There are so many. Watch especially for the sidra festivals in late summer.

 * 2005 Chateau Haut Brion (850€), 2006 Chateau Lafite Rothschild (850€), 2005 Chateau Mouton Rothschild (850€), 2005 Chateau Cheval Blanc (995€), 2005 Chateau La Tour (1100€)
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Looking back and ahead: Resumen y más aventuras

Now that the uvas (grapes) have been eaten and the cotillón packed away for another year, we can begin enero in earnest. New Year’s resolutions for me: more of the same with a little less sidra and a little more ejercicio – for the pancita.* Or as a I grow older and hopefully wiser, to understand my world better: 1, diversity not standardization, 2, everything matters; no objects only subjects with dignity, 3, all is interconnected.

Gijon1 Gijon2

It’s a treat and a privilege to see the world with new eyes, learning to live in Spain as an ex-pat. Herewith, a recap (resumen) of my life so far in Gijón (Manuel Iglesias pictures above), an addendum if you will to my past caracolas, adding what I have learned from my ignorance. For example, not to wash my hands with sopa (soup), but jabón (soap). Not to eat little coves (caletas), but cookies (galletas). And to take care with pronunciation: menú del día not menudo día (a meal not a bad day).

1. Names that may mean something: Zaragoza comes from Agustus Caesar. Andalucía from the Vandals who trashed the Roman empire as far as the Spanish peninsula after sacking Rome in 465 (and from whom we get the words vandal and vandalism). Calderón, as in Iván Calderón who played point guard for the Toronto Raptors for years, is a large caldera or cauldron-like volcanic feature usually formed by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption – in english as in spanish. The Canary Islands are full of calderas and calderones. And, as my own private source tells me, calderon is also a name one can use to describe someone with a rather large belly (see New Year’s panzeta resolution above and the need for less sidra and more ejercicio).

2. Teacher, teach thyself: I always try to learn a new word each day. Tortugas (turtles), bomberos (firemen), burbujas (bubbles) were my first – they have that humorous ring which always catches my juvenile attention. Of course, the learning now is a little more sophisticated. Engaño (deceit, sham, rip-off) I learned in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid. It wasn’t a word I wanted to learn. No te preocupes (don’t worry) was the first word chunk I learned here and has helped me to chill. In computers: dot is punto. And I am learning not to press Ctrl-Alt-Supr as fast. Hopefully, the teacher is always learning.

I am still working on the smaller words, the in-between glue that binds the rest – además besides, aunque although, aún still/yet, incluso even though, según according to, sin embargo therefore.

3. Madrid, Barcelona, and other short hops from Gijón: There are direct flights between Gijón and Barcelona, Gran Canaria, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Palma, Paris, Seville, Tenerife, Valencia. The airport is closest to Avilés but is called Asturias or Oviedo (OVD) in international aviation parlance. Gijón and Oviedo are half-hour drives away. The Asturian cities Oviedo (capital), Gijón (largest), and Avilés (closest to the airport) form a bit of a triangle or fork and are known locally as the Y. If the world goes completely mad and continues to grow as in the past, they will eventually become one big megacity, Giovlés. Many more international flights are available from Santander, just under two-hours drive away.

The Gijón port is now open for crossings to Ireland with car through LD Lines (Rosslare, County Wexford, south of Dublin, once a week, 39 hours) as well as Saint Nazaire, France (15 hours, three times a week) and Poole, England (25 hours, once a week). It’s a long trip, but essential if you want to bring a car and stock up on inexpensive Spanish wine for home.

Check out the Gijón City Council web pages for lots of relevant news and cultural info (some of which is in english), including the totally cool web cam of the central San Lorenzo playa staircase (la escalerona). One can figure out the weather in one picture. Where is Asturias? and Fancornio Rural have more about life and holidays in Asturias.

Asturias has been hit hard by the crisis with 350 companies closing in the last three years. But since it wasn’t as over-developed as the Gold Coast it hasn’t been hit much by the collapse of the property bubble. In Ireland they are now knocking down unsold homes which cost more to maintain than they’re worth. In Spain, there are 800,000 unsold homes, which will no doubt soon be bulldozed (mover con una excavadora, demolerlo).** See Do The Math: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking for more on the perils of unsustainable Bubble Economics and “Gordon Brown and Economic Inequality: 10 Years Later, He Finally Does the Math” for statistics on the resulting increased inequality. Madness at any level.

4. Christmas in Spain: Feliz Navidad: Our bank calendar lists the name of all the saints and their corresponding day of the year. I will end with this since for me it sums up the sophistication and simplicity of Spain in one fell swoop, unthinkable in North America or the U.K. and to a lesser extent Ireland.

With separation of church and state built into the U.S. Constitution and the desire to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, it’s unthinkable for a bank to affiliate itself with a religious order. Throw in recent abuse scandals and it’s just bad business. But here, Liberbank sent us their 2014 calendar, featuring 12 lovely aerial shots of Spanish landscapes, from Parque Naciónal de Monfragüe in Extremadura to La Cimavilla in Gijón to La Gineta and Campo de Montiel in Castile-La Mancha, both exquisite Miró or Chagal paintings in themselves (below).

Spain1 Spain2

But the calendar also marks every saint day from Santa Tatiana (today, January 12) to Santa Apolonia (February 9) to San Pelayo (June 26) to San Jerónimo (September 30). The Catholic Hall of Fame of do-gooders. I won’t be able to forget anyone’s name day now.

And so, more caracolas to come in 2014, reinventing as I go, like Christopher Columbus (a.k.a. Cristóbal Colón) who brought back tales of gold and riches from a new world, creating World 2.0 as he pushed further west, creating the first modern empire as he did.*** Me, I’m hoping to bring back more tales of cider and wine, chorizo and gambas, and life and language as I check out the limits to our very own virtual village. Geronimo.

* Pancita or tummy the diminutive of panza or belly. Thus Don Quixote’s great sidekick Sancho Panza was Sancho Belly. The master had quite the sense of humour.
** “Crisis wipes 80,000 Spanish households off the map,” Amanda Mars, El País, November 4, 2013.
*** According to Giovanni Arrighi, the four main capital-accumulating powers in history were/are the Genoese-backed Spanish (1450–1648), the Dutch (1628–1784), the British (1776–1914), and the Americans (1917–present), each of which advanced the capitalist world system through a “systematic cycle of accumulation” before declining as money lending replaced manufacturing as the main industry.
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Spanish wine now and in a changing world

With record-breaking low temperatures in the United States and Canada, and even minus 13 as far south as Georgia, one wonders what all the fuss is about global warming? It seems to be getting colder not warmer.

But colder winters can be explained easily by global warming. Polar ice melts and creates cold air that moves south. More ice melting than usual, more cold polar air moving south, more precipitation in Canada, the northern United States, and even as far south as the Peach State, which probably couldn’t find two snow shovels to rub together. The times are indeed a changing – good for some and not so good for others. All over the world.

This has huge implications for regional products like wine. In Spain, wine is a huge industry, number one in vineyard acreage in the world, and along with Italy and France producer of almost half the world’s wine. Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Málaga to name but a few renowned regions with unique styles. It’s all in the climate, soil type, and topography – a long growing season with moderate to warm temperatures and little rainfall during the vine growing season. Perfect in Spain. For now.


But on the north coast, only a few hundred kilometres from some of the largest Spanish vineyards, for example in Asturias with wetter, colder winters, you get cider instead of wine – the grape just doesn’t take the same way. Although with global warming, what’s good today may not be good tomorrow. In a few more decades, the Basque Country could become the next Rioja, England the next France, and Tasmania and New Zealand the next Australia. If I was in the wine biz, I would take close stock of the changes.*

But for now, wine in Spain is a well-established business, with records of production (and drinking) as far back as 800 BC. According to Wine Folly the main regions are:

  • Northwest “Green” Spain (zesty white wines),
  • Mediterranean Coast (including the popular sparkling white wine Cava),
  • Ebro River Valley (with the sub regions of La Rioja and Navarra),
  • Duero River Valley (aka Douro in Portugal)
  • Central Plateau (Meseta Central)
  • Andalucía (very hot and dry region famous for Sherry),
  • The Islands (the Canary Islands volcanic soils give a grittier taste).

The main grape (uva) is tempranillo, a diminutive of temprano (early), also known as Crianza, Reserva, Ribera del Duero, Rioja, or Valdepeñas. Tempranillo is a full- or medium-bodied red with a rich cherry and tomato flavour. Good with all kinds of food and best with the popular Ibérico ham.

I am no wine expert by any stretch, but I have tried a few, and so far my favourites are Rioja and Ribera del Duero. And they can be got from as little as €2 in the local supermarket. Even a special Reserva or Gran Reserva is only €7 or €8 – a far cry from the prices I am used to paying for good wine. Compared to other countries, Spanish wine is a great bargain.

Indeed, el vino es la vida aqui en España. In the midst of a changing global climate and economy, it’s nice to sit back and raise a simple glass to the New Year, which in Spain is toasted to by eating a grape at each of the 12 strokes of the midnight bells. For good luck, they must be finished by the twelfth stroke. For good luck, for the heart, and for the aging constitution.

Here’s to 2014. Hopefully, prosperous and not too cold. Cheers. Salud. Enjoy!

* The European Union’s E-VitiClimate Project has an excellent website that documents climate change for European wine producers.
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Christmas in Spain: Feliz Navidad

Christmas in Spain is celebrated first and foremost on Christmas Eve (Nochebuena), when families gather to eat at home from late evening onwards. The food is more than the regular Sunday fare with plenty of fresh marisco, which in Asturias and Galicia is best in November and December. Langostinos, gambas, y centollo. Mmm. Mazapanes, polvorones, peladillas, y especialmente turrones are also eaten with delight.

GijonPlaza GreenSanta

In some homes, the fiesta is interrupted with the ringing of bells at midnight, calling the faithful to la misa del gallo (the mass of the rooster). One particularly Spanish tradition is the lighting of hogueras (bonfires) to mark the shortest day of the year on the winter solstice and the return of the sun to the crops. The King’s speech is heard at 9. In Gijón, there’s a Christmas Day swim, about 2 km across the San Lorenzo playa inlet. Brrr.

Santa doesn’t bring gifts on Christmas Day, although the practice of exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve is becoming more common. Traditionally, children place their shoes on the doorstep on the evening of January 5th and the Three Wise Men (Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltasar) leave gifts for them in the morning, and the Epiphany is celebrated later with candy and cakes for the children. Spectacular parades particularily in the big cities are on the 5th.

3WiseMen BarcleonaRambla03

The belén (nativity scene with manger) is also popular, and many cities erect intricate and elaborate reconstructions of the ancient Jerusalem scene.* Macy’s should be jealous.

Although the Christmas season seems to start earlier and earlier each year, with mobile phone and cable company ads in mid November offering Santa-busting prices, Christmas in Spain seems more peaceful, and seasonal commerce a bit more restrained. On Nochebuena, when all are settled at dinner, you can hear a pin drop in the streets. It’s a time of silent ceremony with peace (paz) to all.

And so from John and Belén in Gijón, Merry Christmas, Nollaig Shona, y Feliz Navidad. See you in the new year with more caracolas.

* For an alternative version, see What’s wrong with this Nativity scene?, The National Post, December 22, 2013.
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Madrid, Barcelona, and other short hops from Gijón

If Madrid is a city of art, then Barcelona is a city of architecture, even its modern buildings not designed by Antoni Gaudí. In Madrid, Goya, Velázquez, Picasso, Dalí, Miró, and El Greco are on display in three great museums; in Barcelona, one just gazes endlessly at all the transcendental beauty, where the curve and the organic trump the square and the industrial. And only a short plane ride from Asturias. Hold on to your hat. Abróchese su cinturón.

Guernica BarcelonaGaudiParkGuelleExterior01

From Asturias, one can also go by car or train to Bilbao and San Sebastián in the heart of the Basque Country or Santiago de Compostela and A Coruña in Galicia in under four hours. Here, the wonders of the Spanish north coast are on permanent display. Sweeping vistas, great seafood, even a bit of Barcelona design and Madrid art are in one place in Bilbao’s sublime Guggenheim. But, for now, Spain’s two biggest cities.


Most visitors come to Madrid by plane, arriving to the simple splendour of Richard Roger’s Terminal 4 in Barajas. A half-an-hour subway trip on the spanking clean Madrid Metro and you’re in the middle of the capital, just minutes from El Prado, the Thyssen, and the Reina Sofía. You can get a group ticket for all three to save money.

Don’t miss Francisco de Goya in El Prado (literally, the meadow), especially his two ceiling-high May 2 and May 3, 1808 masterpieces, commemorating the local resistance to Napoleon’s entry into Madrid on May 2 and the excessive French response the next day. Plenty of art and history in one room. There’s also a room dedicated to his black paintings (pinturas negras), his view of the world as he lost his sanity. And don’t miss his portraits of The Maja, one clothed and the other naked, where he plays artistic peek-a-boo with our thoughts. They’re tucked away at the back of the second floor.

The highlight of course is Picasso’s Guernica* in the Reina Sofía. There are two long rooms dedicated to Picasso’s iconic 20th-century work, showing the stages in its creation for the 1937 Paris Exhibition and some of his early sketches. Guernica itself is beyond words. One just stands and marvels at the madness of the twentieth century and the tyranny of war.

Food is easy to be had near La Puerta de Sol, sadly renamed now after a mobile phone company. Is that why they won’t allow protests? The Occupy movement began here on May 15** (called 15-M), but has been sold to the highest bidder. Again. I wonder how Picasso would commemorate that slander.

Check out the Sunday flea market El Rastro. It starts at Tirso de Molina metro and ends a few hours later. Ramble and enjoy. Look also for Cervantes’s house in Calle de las Huertas.



Madrid: An hour by plane, 5 hours by car, or 5 and a half hours on the Alvia train from Gijón to Atocha (stopping in Oviedo, León, Vallodolid), leaving every day from the main Gijon Adif Train Station. If by plane, take the Metro to the center of Madrid for about €6 return.


Although the largest city on the Mediterranean, Barcelona has a sumptuous small-town feel, surprising for such a diverse and international capital. From atop its sloping Tibidabo hill to the coast, one sees a vast city in easy shimmering vistas. From Park Güell to Port Vell, from the forum to the stadia (Camp Nou and Olympic) and all diagonal points in between, Barcelona is instantly accessible to the first-time visitor.


Not all the splendour is Gaudí’s, although his Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, La Casa Batlló, and La Pedrera are exquisite. I have never seen so many people taking photos in one place. I had to force myself to stop clicking and enjoy the beauty at a more leisurely, non-consuming pace. Of course, every Gaudí building costs to enter, but you can skip the €8 fee into Park Güell by walking around the queues and making your own way to the top. The views are just as stunning for free.

In the heart of Barcelona, the Gothic quarter is a peaceful antidote to the frenzied photographic pace of los edificios de Gaudí, a wonder of narrow pedestrian alleyways, bringing one to a new mystery with every turn. The cathedral itself may be a bit of a letdown after all the walking, but there’s plenty of shopping to be had, some of it reasonably priced.

Be sure to check out La Boquería (La Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boquería), the oldest of the old among the newest of the new, as you ramble down the Rambla and find your way in and out the narrowest of sidestreets. Barcelona is a bit expensive and I wasn’t impressed by the food, but there is no doubting its endless charm.

Barcelona: 90 minutes by plane or 12 hours by car from Gijón. If by plane, take the A1 bus from the indoor airport terminal at the bottom of the escalator. It’s half an hour into the city for about €10 return.

Bilbao, San Sebastián, Santiago de Compostela, A Coruña

There are many other short hops from Gijón by car – Candás and its quiet fishing village, Ribadesella and its pristine beach. Further east along the coast (via the Autovía del Cantábrico) brings one to Santander, Bilbao, and San Sebastián. West is the Way of St. James, along the famed Camino, where pilgrims have been walking for centuries. You’ll see a few on the sides of the roads, but most don’t pass through Gijón.

Now that a new ferry*** has been announced for Gijón – weekly from Ireland and England along with the existing ferry from Nantes – the north coast will be opened to many more English-speaking travellers. More to come on the north coast in another caracola!

* Guernica: The biography of a twentieth-century icon by Gijs van Hensbergen, London: Bloomsbury (2005)
** “The ‘Occupy’ movement’s Spanish roots,” Ryan Gallagher, The New Statesmen, October 25, 2011
*** “El Musel tendrá línea de ferry con Inglaterra e Irlanda a partir de enero,” El Comercio, October 12, 2013
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La Liga, the Premiership, and other professional sports – Fair or foul?

I haven’t had much time to watch sports since I arrived in Spain this past summer. Most of the good ones require a cable subscription anyway, e.g., Canal+ (at €50 a month). For free, I get Masters tennis, cycling, and Basque pelota (or frontón after the name of the two-walled playing area), a two-player team handball game from which jai alai as played in Miami and Cuba is derived. La Liga is beyond easy reach, but even if I did stump up the cash to watch Spanish football, the odds are stacked in favour of the perennial favourites Real Madrid and Barcelona. Year after year.


Real Madrid and Barça have won La Liga, the top division of Spanish football, 21 times in the past 25 years. As for how they compare to other teams, a simple statistic is the standard deviation of league winning percentages, which when compiled over a number of years shows how fair or stacked any league is. In Do The Math!, I calculated such a Fairness Quotient for La Liga and the English Premiership (shown below) as well as for the main professional team sports in the United States and Canada (baseball, football, basketball, and hockey).

Here you can see how the English Premiership has become more unfair every year, especially since the advent of the Champions League and its multi-million euro payouts. As far as the EPL goes, there are only four teams: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal, although a recent influx of oil money to Manchester City may expand the potential winner’s pool to 5. The rest are just seat fillers for George Clooney and Matt Damon on their cigarette and Nespresso breaks at the Oscars.

DTMFig6-8European sports leagues wpct

English Premiership League  (left) and Spanish La Liga (right): Highest winning percentage (top curve), lowest winning percentage (bottom curve), absolute deviation (middle, dashed curve), and standard deviation or FQ (middle, solid curve)

But so what if a league isn’t fair? – It’s supposed to be a competition. The good teams beat the bad and that’s it – sport. But if the same good teams beat the same bad teams year after year, then it isn’t sport, it’s economics. In fact, economics have taken over major sports everywhere where lucrative television deals are to be had.

Why is this a caracola? Well, I might like to see Sporting de Gijón play without having to pay an expensive cable subscription, which in reality is a Real Madrid-Barcelona Champions League Vanity Tax (RMBCLVT). I might even like to see Real Madrid and Barça play occasionally, to see if any other team comes close to beating them. But let’s face it, that’s unlikely, thanks to today’s sports administration (ahem, accountants). Though it would be fun to see, once.

For other interesting statistical connections see:
Music Statistics: Seeing the Business Side to Songs, The International Year of Statistics, October 18, 2013
Teeter-Totter Averages: How to See Everyday Statistics, The International Year of Statistics, August 19, 2013
Patterns in Probability: How to See Binomial Statistics, The International Year of Statistics, July 8, 2013
For FQs of North American sports leagues and other interesting economic comparisons, see Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2012, 2013).
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