Saturday, June 30, 2012

Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol

Now that you're oriented with the city of Madrid, you might be interested to see Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol at day and night. 

Plaza Mayor during the day:

and at night:

And the same for Sol. During the day:
and at night:
Notice how the cool of the evening brings out many more people into the Plazas to enjoy what Madrid has to offer.

basic Madrid geography

I've been mentioning different parts of the city in my blog posts and I realized that people who are not familiar with Madrid just glaze over and ignore. So this will be an attempt to explain some basic Madrid geography, to get you oriented to the city without having lived here or even visited. 

Here's a basic map to get you oriented with an attempt at making the scales appropriate:

But after living here for a bit, I have this caricature map in my head:

As for which is "correct": well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?

I know that some items are not consistent between the two maps - there's a reason why one is labeled as more correct scale-wise than the other. The main difference is that Puerta del Sol is HUGE in the caricature map - the reason for this is that it seems that no matter where you walk in the city, you will always hit Puerta del Sol. If you meet there before going out for the night, you will invariably come back to it again. Guidebooks say to go there because you can find everything you need in Madrid starting there. That's definitely true, but you should always explore other areas. It's central, very touristy, but also a good landmark.

A one-sentence blurb about each of the map components, in order from most common to least common:

  • Puerta del Sol - the hub of activity in Madrid. It is the actual center of the city, the tourist center of the city, the food center of the city, and the metro center of the city. All roads lead to the Puerta del Sol, and if you meet people here you will invariably be at a good place to start an evening of fun.
  • Plaza Mayor - the second nearly-adjacent-to-Sol hub of food and tapas
  • Gran Vía - the "broadway" of Madrid, separating the Puerta del Sol area from the north area. Below Gran Vía is very touristy and generally more expensive. North of Gran Vía is generally more residential and a bit cheaper. 
  • Chueca - Madrid's gay district. It's really only a few square blocks, but it has some nice bars and tapas places. Sam, Cristina, Lucas, Will, and Carlos live there.
  • La Latina - cheap shopping area with lots of good tapas places, a street of all-hiking-and-camping-gear stores, and holds El Rastro on Sunday morning.
  • Lavapiés - the "ethnic" part of Madrid, with a Senegalese ghetto, a Chinese ghetto, an Indian ghetto, and probably more ghettos that are distinct but that I can't recognize.
  • Parque del Retiro - a huge park (think Central Park). retiro literally means "retirement", but it is meant to mean relaxation. Lots of locals and tourists alike just relaxing and enjoying the nice weather.
  • Atocha train station - most trains coming to Madrid from other cities arrive/depart from here. It's at the southeastern tip of the Madrid that most tourists will see. Very close to the Prado and Reina Sofía museums.
  • Moncloa - very university-student-heavy region, with lots of university students renting apartments there, since it is very close to a number of different universities. 
  • Plaza de España - has a statue of Don Quixote, some pretty buildings, and signifies the end of Gran Vía. Adjacent to the Templo de Debod, a common botellón location. 5 minute walk from my apartment. Evelin, Sophie, and Mary live very close to it.
  • Palacio Royal - the Royal Palace. It's pretty.
  • Chamartín train station - trains going to some cities. Need to go here to make reservations on trains with my Eurail pass. Takes a long time on the metro...
  • My work - near the Gregorio Marañon metro stop, a bit closer to where I live than Chamartín but on the same metro line. Cecily and Lionel live close to it.
  • Bulderking - an only-bouldering gym that I determined to be the closest to my apartment

pig ears!

Or orejas de cerdo. There is one tapas bar in Madrid near Sol called Las Orejas de Oro that specializes in pig ear tapas. Before you judge or think it's gross, I suggest you try it. 
Oscar and I went to try them out on Friday. 6 euros gets you this giant heaping plate of ears with the sauce and bread. They think you're weird if you don't order anything to drink, so I got my usual copa de tinto and Oscar went for a vermút (vermouth). 

The bartender took a handful of raw pig ears from a giant plate next to him, plopped them on the stove, sprinkled olive oil on top of the mess, and chopped/mixed them with his knives for a while until they were ready, so you knew they were cooked as fresh as possible. The ears were mostly cartilage and fat with some meat sticking in places. It was a peculiar taste. As mom would put it, "it's an acquired taste." Definitely worth trying if you're in Madrid! This plate can easily be shared among 3 or 4 people, because that's a lot of pig ears! 

Friday, June 29, 2012

MISTI dinner, a JOYful evening

MISTI talk

Last night, Alicia (the MISTI coordinator) came to Madrid. She was on her way to visit the MISTI kids in Madrid, San Sebastián, and Barcelona. The first thing she scheduled was a talk about "networking" by a Dr. Jordi Robert-Ribes at the Instituto Internacional, very close to the place I work. So I went to buy an erasable pen from the Hiperpapelería Carlin - two euros and I was armed and ready. Then I walked the 5 minutes to the Instituto Internacional, only to sit through the most boring talk on networking I have ever heard. A few choice points of his I didn't agree with (at a future time there will be a link to another blog post about my thoughts on networking that will address the concerns raised here):
  • The point of networking is to see what you can do for the other person rather than see what you can get back from them in an exchange.
  • The building of trust in a networking relationship can be accomplished with no accord for local customs. 
  • If you're nervous at a conference coffee break, just to find the person huddling against the wall and talk to him instead. 
  • Eat a huge meal before going to the conference so you can ignore the free food and focus on talking to people. 
  • Always ask a question to an important speaker, even if it's stupid, just so that everyone else in the room hears your one-sentence pitch about who you are.

MISTI dinner

But a redeeming fact was that after the talk, Alicia took us all out to dinner, on MIT's dime. In her own words: "I've been doing this 5 years and I've never seen a group as eager to eat food and drink wine as you guys." We went to a place off of Plaza de Santa Ana, a bit south of Sol, called La Bardemcilla (Calle Nunez de Arce, 3). Because MIT was paying, this is what we ordered, to be split among the 7 people on our side of the table (Lucas, Cristina, Sam, Oscar, Ann, me, and Josh):

  • Croquetas "Jamón Jamón" (ham croquettes)
  • Croquetas "De La Madre Superiora" (cod fish croquettes)
  • Chorizo con los "Días Contados" (Spanish sausage cooked in white wine sauce)
  • "Huevos de Oro" Estrellados (fried eggs with potatoes, onions, and ham)
  • Albóndigas de "Carnaval" (homemade meatballs)
  • Calamares de un "Planeta Extraño" (fried squid tentacles with tartar sauce)
  • "Callos Mayor" (tripe)
  • "La Morcilla mas fea del mundo" (black pudding, otherwise known as blood sausage)
  • "Torrente" Manchego (a plate of Manchego cheese)
  • Chuletitas (small adorable lamb chops) x 2, which for some reason I can't find on the menu online but we definitely ate two plates of...
  • Two bottles of Rioja, a classic Spanish wine
  • Two pitches of sangría, sweet Spanish wine with sugar and citrus fruits
  • A bajillion baskets of bread to dip in all the yummy sauces!
One of my favorites were the lamb chops, but the sauce from the albóndigas was spicy and the best dip for the bread, by far! Alicia then ordered us all deserts, of which there were four plates that had a bit of every kind of desert on it.

There were a total of 18 people for dinner and each group ordered about this much.... the total bill (again, covered by MIT), ended up being 570 euros, including tax and alcohol. I bet the amount of bread alone added up to at least 10 euros (for reference, each basket was 80 cents). 

Thanks again Alicia for taking us out to dinner! 


By the time dinner was over, it was already 11:55pm. Now, cuando en España.... (when in Spain...), you need to enjoy what you have and the people you're hanging out with. The plan from the get-go was to go to the club Joy, off of Plaza del Sol, before 1:30am tonight after the MISTI dinner. Thursdays at Joy is international night, which means that for college students you get a discount: 10 euros covers the entrance fee and two drinks. 

We decided to meet in the Puerta del Sol under the Nike sign as per usual at 12:45am and head over to Joy - literally a two-minute walk. Cecily, Lionel, Josh, Ann, Jordan, Oscar, Sebastian, Evelin, and I all went to have a good time. They didn't have mojitos, but no matter, we discovered that vodka-limón was just as good. And we discovered a new Red Bull-like energy drink called Burn that tasted like Fanta Limón but had a bit of a caffeine kick to it that apparently the bartenders give you if you say "limón" and they didn't hear you properly. 

The club was filled with tourists as usual, but I met one guy from Madrid. He went to Cornell and his friend went to come other Ivy League school - I forget which one. Let's call it IVY_LEAGUE. Our conversation (which I wasn't thrilled about) went kind of like this:

Him: Eh, bonita! (Hey pretty girl). English?
Me: Hola. You should really think of a better pick-up line. Nice to meet you too. And who might you be?
Him: I'm from Madrid but I go to IVY_LEAGUE. 
Me: Oh cool, I go to MIT. (show Brass Rat)
Him: Well, that's almost the ivy league; you know that it's not the ivy league, right?
Me: Yea, I'm aware. 
Him: You know, you didn't quite make it to the ivy league. I hope you know that. 
Me: Yep, it was nice meeting you too. (walk away)

I'm not sure he understood why I didn't want to talk to him after he bashed MIT....

But nonetheless, the music was all American music. There were clearly no locals - except for the one from Cornell who said him and his friends come to Joy once a summer to "check out the scene", which I interpreted to mean "pick up foreign chicks." This solidifies my thinking that nightclubs are a thing of tourists rather than legitimate madrileño life. But I've heard from a few places that the clubs popular among the local crowd are farther away from the city center, closer to Chamartín or Atocha (Kapital is right next to Atocha). Joy, being right off of Puerta del Sol, has the disadvantage that every single tourist walking to Sol sees it and wants to go there. But the club has only one dance floor, about 20m x 20m large. There were three balconies that looked down onto the dance floor, but for some reason they were closed when we were there. 

We called it a night at around 4am, because we were feeling the tiredness and realizing that we all had to get up for work the next morning. It was worth it though; good people, good times.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

salsa isn't Spanish!

As promised, after the Spain vs. Portugal game, Jess and her co-workers took us all to a salsa club. By the time the game ended (overtime, penalty kicks) and we walked to the club, it was nearly midnight. All of us had work the next day, and we were starting to feel a bit lame. But Will staunchly said that he is only going if Cristina goes, and what do you know, Cristina called his bluff! So Will, Sam, Cristina, Sophie, Sebastian, Jess, Evelin, me and a few of Jess's co-workers all went inside. This late on a Wednesday the cover was 9 euros for entrance + 2 sodas OR 1 alcoholic beverage. 

The salsa club is called Randall's, and it's located near the Moncloa/Plaza de España area, which happens to be very close to where I live.

Typically they have a lesson at 11pm for an hour, then two hours of open dancing until 2am, another mini-lesson at 2am, and then open dancing for a while more. 

The reason I thought this salsa club/bar was awesome was because it wasn't super crowded on a weekday night. This means that the only people there were locals! Places with lots of tourists are crowded always at all times of day, but because this wasn't super crowded, I knew it was authentic. 

Salsa is not a Spanish dance; it is Latin American in origin. But there are plenty of Latin American immigrants who live in Spain (note, one of my flatmates is such a one) and have lived there for many years, so they are as much "locals" as half the population of the United States (blog post about what it means to be a local coming soon...). In any case, dancing with Jess's co-workers was fun; they danced salsa very well, since they were all mostly Latin American. I did not dance with anyone who was not from our original group, mainly because they were much much better than we were and didn't need to ask us to dance. 

As a girl dancing salsa in both the US and Spain, all you need to do is wait for the guy to ask you to dance; make eye contact and know you're interested in dancing, but the rest is up to him. I definitely want to go back at some point to catch the lesson and improve my salsa skillz!

Spain vs. Portugal

The entire country was gearing up for the semi-final game between Spain and Portugal yesterday. Jess mentioned the fact that a bunch of us wanted to watch the game, so her co-workers reserved the back of the bar called Bergantiños near Moncloa (the university district slightly north of where I live)

literally a 10-minute walk from my apartment, for maybe 20 of us and a bunch of our co-workers to watch the game (after a much-needed hour-long siesta of course). 

Unfortunately I don't have any pictures because I was afraid something would happen to my camera (turns out it was probably one of the more safe places I've brought my camera), but every time the Spaniards came close to scoring, the entire bar would cry out with an "oooo" "ooo" "AAAARRGGG" when they inevitably didn't come close. 

The game went into overtime, with neither Portugal nor Spain being able to break the other's defenses. Both teams came too close to scoring for comfort, although Spain had more almost-goals than the Portuguese. And all the locals were bashing Ronaldo for being too much of an actor and thinking that he's too good-looking. 

But after the score was 0-0 after overtime as well, the sounds coming from the bar during the penalty kicks were ridiculous. With every single kick, it was either chanting cheering "Casillas, Casillas" (the Spanish goalkeeper), or chanting the name of the Spaniard taking the penalty kick. Every scored goal by the Spaniards and every block by Casillas gave way to an eruption of cheer from the entire bar - MIT, locals, co-workers alike. 

When it was 2-2 in penalty kicks, both Spain and Portugal having missed their first kicks, Spain scored while Portugal missed. At this point everyone in the bar was on their feet, watching what would happen next. If Spain scored their next kick, everything would be over and Ronaldo wouldn't even be able to take his last penalty kick. Lo and behold, Spain pulls through and scores. As soon as the ball rolled into the goal, the entire bar started jumping up and down chanting sí, se puede (yes, we can!), punctuated with cries of Viva España! (long live Spain!) every now and then. 

Chatting with locals who were not my co-workers and generally socializing with other MIT folks over a tinto de verano and a soccer game was a great way to spend part of an evening.

heat, and the Eurail pass

the heat

I did not sleep well last night at all. It was upwards of 95 degrees outside with absolutely no breeze. Thank goodness it wasn't humid, or it would have just been impossible to breathe. It was too hot to wear anything to bed, so I just slept in my underwear on top of the sheets. I would lie in bed trying to sleep but be woken up every 5 minutes in a puddle of my own sweat, take a long drink of water, adjust the shades/shutters, and flop back down on the bed. I tried alternating between having the windows open to get some fresh air and closing the shutters to trap out the heat, but I'm afraid there was barely a difference between the two. This is me, who sleeps with a comforter in the summer because I like sleeping in the heat, not being able to sleep when it was this hot last night.

My room get sunlight in the morning, during the hot times of day, so if the windows are open in the morning the room heats up instantly. Even with both my door and window open, I can't get a breeze going, since they are on the same side of the wall. As soon as I open my door after a hot night, the slightly-cooler air of the living room is a refreshing change. 

the Eurail

I finally had success in obtaining a Eurail pass today after work. You need your original passport and a debit card to buy it - it's only available for non-EU residents. After going to the Chamartín station, you need to pick an "international" ticket number and wait your turn in line. I got to the station at 5:45pm after leaving work a bit early (it was still a good 20-minute ride on the subway, farther than what I ride to go to work every morning) and still had to wait at least half an hour in line. 

When I finally got to the counter to buy my Eurail pass, the prices I saw on the flyer (slightly lower than the online prices) made it such that the youth pass for any 3 bordering countries of your choice for 5 days was only 10 euros more than a 5-day pass for only Spain. So of course I got the 3-country pass, choosing Spain, France, and Germany, costing me 250 euros. I will definitely be in all three of those countries in the next 60 days (my pass was validated today, so it is valid for any journeys until August 27th, at which point I won't be in Europe anyway), and with the tips and tricks of a Eurail pass, will save me a butt-load of money. If I don't get to try it out this Sunday, I will definitely use it on Monday when I will be in Hannover/Braunschweig for the UAV conference with my lab. 

In a paragraph, here is how the Eurail pass works: with a Eurail pass (valid for n days [however many you bought - 5 for me] in the next 60 from which it is validated [June 27th to August 27th for me]), you can go to any ticket-sale window with a teller and buy/reserve tickets for any rail line in the countries for which your pass is valid [Spain, France, Germany for me] and reserve any ticket on the train. For some train services, mostly overnight or high-speed lines, you need to reserve your tickets, but in that case the tickets cost no more than 10 euros. When a one-way ticket to Barcelona normally costs 150 euros, this is an incredible bargain. Any train station with a ticket window and a teller has the capability to reserve tickets for you with a Eurail pass. 

I hope to have some exciting adventures with this new Eurail pass!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Madrid essentials: English-language bookstore

I brought a few books with me to Madrid:

  • Rick Steve's Spain 2012 guidebook
  • Rick Steve's Madrid and Toledo 2012 guidebook
  • Lonely Planet's Madrid Encounter
  • Lonely Planet's Europe on a Shoestring
  • The Geek's Guide to World Domination, taken from Erika who was going to give it away, and I didn't have reading material. 
Of course, I don't need this many guidebooks and I need a new book to read, so I went on a mission to find an English-language bookstore where I could trade or sell my books and get new ones. 

My first thought was to go to a hostel's book exchange, but a lot of the hostels I had seen needed special access to get into the front door, so that would not have worked very well. 

Instead, a few blocks from my apartment, I found J&Js Bookstore and Coffee Shop, also of course doubling as a bar on the Calle de Espiritu Santo, 47, near the Noviciado Metro stop. 

Actually a 2-minute walk from home, it was the perfect place to check out. It was filled with second-hand books that people clearly came and dropped off to trade in for other books. 

The owners and manager, Jamie, Javi, and Dave, are all super friendly and speak both good Spanish and English. The upstairs bar is filled with young English-speaking travelers and is always a place to find someone to talk to if everyone else is busy. 

I ended up selling Mary my copy of Rick Steve's Madrid and Toledo and trading in the Geek's Guide for Dune (which I have since traded in for Paul of Dune and some other literature) and plan on going back there, both to sell back my Madrid Encounter book for something else and to go to their Trivia Night on some Friday where I don't have anything else to do. 

I highly recommend coming here to grab an English book for a fairly decent price!

the Madrid metro system

It took me a while to figure out the Madrid metro system - the fees in particular. First off, the center of the city is pretty small, so taking the metro two stops is probably not worth it, since by the time you walk to the metro stop, wait for the train, and take the train, you would have walked to your destination. 
The subway is clean, on time, and not full of pickpockets. It's still better to watch your purse or backpack, but in the mornings it's mostly filled with zombies going to work reading the paper/a book, and in the evenings filled with tourists and people coming home from work. 

Metro map

Although the city is small, the metro pretty much goes everywhere you need it to go: 
For reference, I live in the triangle between Plaza de España-Noviciado-Tribunal and work near Gregorio Marañon. That's 2 or 3 stops on the metro in the morning - never more than 15 minutes.

The monthly pass

Easily the most confusing part about the metro system is the monthly pass. Is it worth it? The normal fees for a ride on the metro (as of June 2012) is 1.5 euros for one ride. You can get a 10-ride abono ("special bonus") for 10 euros. I learned the hard way that after you buy one of these, you shouldn't put it near any magnets because it gets demagnetized (my wallet has magnets in it and demagnetized the strip, rendering the ticket useless). 

If you need to go to/from the airport, you need to pay an additional 3 euros, regardless of what ticket you have. You can buy a special "10-ride airport" abono for 13 euros, and you can ride to the airport as many times as you want. 

What most locals have is called an abono mensual (monthly pass). They come in three forms: "regular", "carte jovén" and "senior citizen." The price depends on which of the categories you fall into and which zone you want (basically everything in Madrid is in zone A, unless you work out in the suburbs somewhere and need zones B1 and B2). It gives you unlimited rides on the metro for one month, starting on the day that you first use it. However, this summer, Madrid is transitioning to a new system. The old abonos are a huge plastic sleeve that have written on it your name, have a photo of you, and have a small pocket for a .5 in x 2 in card that is the ticket (you put it into a slot in the entrance machines and you get it back once the machine reads the ticket). The new abonos are just a plastic card the size of a credit card with your photo on them that work exactly like Charlie Cards - they're prox cards, but you don't have to recharge them. 

To get a card under the old system, you have to go to an estanco, or tobacco shop. These are officially-sanctioned places where you can apply for an abono. You pay about 1.5 euros, bring them a copy of your passport and a photo of you, and in 10 days come and pick up one of the giant plastic sleeves I mentioned. Then once you have this, you can go to the metro station officials and buy a monthly metro pass. This system is confusing to no end, especially when you can't tell if they're telling you that you have to pick up your card "within" or "in" 10 days. But it's even more confusing when you don't need to do this! 

It turns out that under the new system (which so far is only implemented for the abono mensual para jóvenes (monthly pass for youths) for Zone A), all you need to do is go to the Príncipe Pío metro stop, go to the monthly pass office, and get your card right then and there. For this all you need is your passport and 35ish euros. If you need anything other than this monthly pass for youths for Zone A, you have to go to an estanco and go the usual way. The plan is for Madrid to transition completely to the prox-card model of metro fairs, but until that happens, estancos it is. It's a bit strange that you can't get this plastic sleeve ID at a metro stop - you absolutely have to get it from an estanco. The only other thing these estancos do is sell tobacco, so it's also unclear to me why they are the keepers of the metro ID. But I can't complain - I have my abono para jóvenes for Zone A that I got at Príncipe Pío and have been happily using that all summer. When my 30 days run out, all I need to do is bring my card to any metro stop and they'll refill it for me for the next 30 days. 

I hope someone else reads this and doesn't have to go through all the trouble and confusion that I did!

But what else is in the metro...

What I forgot to mention is that in the metro they sell alcohol!

Monday, June 25, 2012

valencia: a weekend trip

This weekend I met up with Ann, Erica, Josh, Mary, and Sophie in Valencia, Spain, on the Mediterranean, for a crazy weekend of sightseeing and the Festival of San Juan. 

View Larger Map

Valencia is known for a few things:
  • The birthplace of paella, a pilov-like fried rice dish, two common types being valenciana (with chicken and rabbit) and de mariscos (seafood) [which we did eat, and it kept us full until about noon the next day]
(and of course Erika being happy at eating Paella)
  • Delicious horchata (or orxata in Valencian and Catalan), a drink made from tigernuts, water, and sugar
  • A couple of crazy festivals: Falles (the celebration of Saint Joseph, the patron saint of Valencia), Sant Joan (the celebration of the longest day of the year), and many more. 
  • Agua de Valencia, an alcoholic cocktail made from orange juice, gin, vodka, and cava (Spanish wine)
  • The beaches
Overall, Valencia is considered to be a party town. So me and some friends decided to check out one of said parties. 

The festival of San Juan

The longest day of the year is June 21st, the summer solstice. The Valencian spin on this traditional pagan celebration, of course, involves the beach. Similar to a botellón (described in my post here), during this celebration people flock to the beaches of Valencia to make bonfires, drink, socialize, take a midnight dip into the ocean, and generally have a good time. 

In planning this trip, we realized that all the hostels in Valencia this weekend required a two-night booking, since this weekend was the same weekend as the Festival of San Juan and a huge Formula-1 race. None of the MISTI Madrid crowd (sans Ann) actually stayed the two nights, but we had to book two nights to even get a one-night stay at a hostel. 

Meeting new people

Ann stayed at a separate hostel from the rest of us and made friends with María, a woman from Argentina who was solo-traveling around Italy, France, and Spain for her summer vacations. Even though we spoke fairly rapid English, she was content to spend all day Saturday hanging out with us. We all got to talk in Spanish plenty, and learned a few new words!

The hostel

Me, Josh, Mary, and Sophie all stayed at the Valencia Guesthouse in the city center, a short walk from the train station. The hostel was run by two guys who also lived on the same floor as the rooms of the hostel. There was no front desk or reception, so you had to call at least 30 minutes in advance of checking in to make sure one of them was going to be there. The strangest part about this hostel was that the rooms of dormitorios mixtos (mixed-gender multi-person rooms) had not double but triple bunks! 

The sights

We saw all that the city center of Valencia had to offer. The cathedral:
The Mercado Central:
with it's fare share of jamón, as always:

And we moved on to La Lonja, a former silk exchange market: 
and the cathedral:
until we started walking through stretch of park surrounding the inner city center to eventually see the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències (City of Arts and Sciences):
But on the way, Josh heard some drumming, so we ended up finding....

A gay pride promotion parade

The phrase for a "gay pride parade" in Spanish is la marcha gay. We were all surprised to hear that "gay" seemed to not translate into anything specific in Spanish.

We were also surprised to see a wedding party at a church right across from the marcha gay
My computer is now sporting a cool rainbow flag with a pro-gay slogan written in Catalan. Look at me becoming more European!

The beach

We ended up at the beach at around 10pm, after stopping at a Mercadona to pick up drinks and a bar to watch part of the Spain vs. France soccer game to find hordes of people at the beach. The Valencian tram/metro system didn't really make any sense, but eventually we figured it out and got to the beach.

While the Festival of San Juan was originally a pagan holiday celebrating the longest day of the year, Valencia is always looking for an excuse to party. The prominent feature of the festival was the fact that in addition to it being a standard botellón (explained in my other post HERE [link will be included once I write the post], groups of people with drinks and food were huddled around their personal bonfires. 

It is a tradition in the Festival of San Juan to, at midnight, with plenty of drink in you, to jump over these bonfires. No fear, the bonfires are small and very easy to jump over, even with some drink in you. 
Apparently we got there a bit too late to get free wood and coals to make our own bonfire, but we made friends with locals and non-locals alike, getting to share their fires and generally having a good time. 

We stayed at the beach until sunrise, once the police started kicking everyone off the beach so it could be cleaned. An hour and a half later (again, Valencian metro is slightly complicated) we were all safe and asleep in our hostels after a long night of sand, fire, and drink. 

We touched the Mediterranean Sea! The water was much warmer than any other salt water I've touched - I would guess about 65 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Happy Summer Solstice!

The oops

The one downer of this trip was the fact that it was the first time I ever had something stolen from me. While at the beach, my backpack was with me at all times. The only time it was not attached to me in some way was when Ann and I stood up to talk to some friends Erica and Josh brought back. I got back to my seat 2 minutes later and my backpack was lost. Fortunately enough, here is a comprehensive list of what was in it: 

  • American smartphone (no SIM card - that's in my apartment in Madrid)
  • 50 euros
  • Umbrella
  • Nalgene
  • 1 pair of underwear
  • 1 pair of socks
  • 1 light sweater
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Hair brush
  • Deodorant
  • Travel-size container of shampoo
  • A clean shirt
  • A pen
  • Pajama pants
  • Pajama shirt
  • Bathing suit
  • Sunglasses
  • Apartment keys, which Fabian had an extra copy of (thank goodness!)
  • My train ticket back to Madrid, which I could print again at the station

The most expensive thing stolen was my American phone. Now I know that I can live without internet, and will never bring it anywhere unless it is attached to me. Luckily, the next morning I woke up a bit early to go searching for a clean shirt and stumbled upon a street fair in Valencia in which I was able to buy a shirt for a euro (and not a bad shirt, by the way) and a replacement backpack for 8 euros, much cheaper than I had ever seen anywhere else. 


Lo que pasa en Valencia queda en Valencia. What happens in Valencia stays in Valencia. It's a city that likes to party, drink, and have a good time. Lots of young people are at the beach during the summer, so it's a great place to meet both locals and travelers alike. The three things to go back to Valencia for are agua de Valencia, the nature park to the south of the city, and actually going into the Science Museum.  

Friday, June 22, 2012

printer printer everywhere

When I got my tickets back from the printer at work, I thought the printer had eaten my paper in a strange way. But I had forgotten that in Europe the standard size of paper is A4 and not "Letter"! To my shock and surprise, the PDF output by the Renfe website for my train tickets this weekend fit perfectly on this oddly-shaped piece of paper that came out of the printer. The difference looks like this:

(graphic created by me)

American standard "Letter" paper is 8.5 in x 11 in (216 mm x 279mm). A4 standard paper is 8.27 in x 11.69 in (210mm x 297mm).

So I did a bit of research. As it turns out, the "A" sizes that are used in Europe are based on a standard aspect ratio of square root of 2. Additionally, each successive smaller size of paper has it's dimensions constructed as follows: if size A0 has dimensions C x D, where D is smaller, then size A1 will have dimensions D x C/2, A2 will have dimensions min(C/2, D) x max(C/2, D)/2, and so on. Note the pretty picture from Wikipedia:

File:A size illustration2 with letter and legal.svg
(graphic taken from Wikipedia)

As always, I think the European system makes more sense, I was just momentarily surprised.

tapas demystified

The food that everyone knows Spaniards to be famous for is their tapas, otherwise known as raciónes. These are small portions of food meant to be shared among a few people, with drinks at a bar. Traditionally, in smaller towns and more rural areas, you are given a small portion of raciónes when you order a drink at a bar. In a big city like Madrid, this is becoming less and less common. 

In this list of common tapas, at the end I've included a rough pricing scale. $ denotes the cheapest ones (usually 2 euros or less) and the others are roughly scaled according to that. The reason I don't include pictures is that the presentation of tapas varies wildly from place to place, so I make no promises. I also make no promises if my pricing scale is off:
  • salmoriejo - a creamy tomato-based soup-like concoction that resembles a cold soup, and a bit lighter on the stomach than gazpacho (traditional cold tomato soup) $$
  • aceitunas - olives from a can, nothing special about them $
  • albóndigas - meatballs, usually swimming in some kind of special house sauce that varies wildly among bars $$
  • rabo de toro - ox tail. Some of the most tender meat you'll ever eat, and definitely worth trying at least once. It's better at a fancy touristy place because it's good quality and very very tender. Reminds me of the goose necks that papa likes... $$$
  • croquetas - croquettes, kind of like fish sticks. Nothing special about them - deepfried in batter. $
  • jamón ibérico - or jamón in general - ham of some variety. The ibérico variety is guaranteed quality from a particular cut of pig, salted and either cured or smoked. Any other type of jamón is not guaranteed to be from a particular cut of pig, but it's all delicious nonetheless. Not very fatty, but rich with the flavor of pork. $$
  • boquerones - fried anchovies. If you're Russian you've probably had canned shproti  - these things taste approximately the same except smothered in batter and fried. You can eat the whole thing, bones and tail, since the bones are so small. $$
  • queso manchego - manchego cheese. The "fancy" cheese in Spain that is hard and sharp. $$
  • chopitos or calimari - fried squid. Also fried in batter, sometimes with the ink at a super fancy place. $$-$$$
  • gambas - shrimp in something or other. Varies wildly in the sauce and presentation, but usually worth it because they are super tasty! $$-$$$
  • patatas bravas - small fried potatoes with some kind of salty sauce sprinkled on them. Standard fare, and way better than french fries! $
Of course, there are a million other exotic tapas and probably some that I missed, but these are the most common ones I have encountered. If you find yourself in a restaurant facing a word you don't know, just ask the waiter to explain. Of course, this requires knowing some Spanish food vocabulary, but that post is coming later. 

But when locals go to a bar, they will most likely receive with their drink a small portion of bread or a small plate of olives, more as a taster than as real food. 

Tourists flock to tapas because it gives you the chance to try a bunch of different foods without committing to one dish. Many treat it as a dinner if you order enough. If you're alone and you order one portion of raciónes it can easily be a dinner, but if you have more than one person, you'll want to order more than one dish to make it as filling for a dinner.

From what I've seen, locals treat tapas more as a vector for both socializing and drinks, but it is definitely a common sight to see locals at a bar sharing a portion of a small raciónes with a beer or a glass of wine.

My favorite places to get tapas are not at big touristy places along Cava Baja or Puerta del Sol or Plaza Mayor. I'm more a fan of going into a bar near my apartment or in some other area of the city and seeing what that bar as to offer in terms of raciónes. It's often cheaper, more tasty, and more authentic, not to mention the fact that there are fewer tourists!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

bouldering is climbing naked, right?

I was asking a Spaniard today how to say "bouldering" in Spanish, because I realized I didn't know the word. The word for climbing is escalera, but that can mean all types of climbing (deportiva (sport), trad, mixto (mixed)), etc. 

So the conversation goes like this:

Michele: Como se llama el tipo de escalera que hagas sin ropa?

And the guy I was talking to does a double-take and smirks at me. What I then realized is that what I said translated to:

Michele: "How do you call the type of climbing you do without clothes?"

But the guy was a champ and let the mistake slide. He calmly (well, with a smirk) answered:

Climber guy: Sin cuerda? Se llama escalera sin ayuda.
(Translation: Without rope? It is called "climbing without help"). 

Knowing that my favorite type of climbing is bouldering, the irony of translating this as "bouldering is called helpless climbing" does not escape me. 

At least know I remembered that ropa means clothing - one of those words they teach you in 7th grade Spanish I never thought I would use (incorrectly) in conversation.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Una noche con Kylián

It was Cristina's idea to go see the Compañía Nacional de Danza perform three of choreographer Jirí Kylián's pieces tonight. There were posters like this:
all around the city of Madrid, so I was excited to see it. 

The performance was held at the Teatro de la Zarzuela (pronounced sar-swell-a), close to Plaza del Sol (smack dab in the middle of Madrid).

And the inside of the theater was a bit larger than the New Victory Theater in NYC
and I had cheap-for-under-26-year-olds seats on the first tier (primer piso) where I could see everything that was happening on the stage very well.

Kylián was a contemporary ballet choreographer of the late 20th century, and his pieces were as strange as they were inspiring. The three performed pieces were Sleepless, Petite Mort, and Sinfonía de los Salmos. My favorite piece was the last one, where for 25 minutes none of the ballet dancers left the stage, all the while expressing their exhaustion as was written into the dance. 

But for humor's sake, the best sentence from the program pamphlet is the following sentence, talking about the second piece, Petite Mort: "Petite Mort, que literalmente significa muerta pequeña, es también, en lenguas como el francés y el árabe, paráfrasis de orgasmo." Reader, even with your broken Spanish you can translate this to: "Petite Mort, literally meaning small death, is also, in languages such as French and Arabic, a paraphrasing of orgasm." And so it was.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

expensive tapas on the Calle Cava Baja

It's not often I can afford to eat expensive food. Thanks to an MIT Class of 2013 (yea, they have a website, what now), the 2013s in Madrid went out for expensive (and yummy!) tapas!

We went to the Casa Lucas on the tourist-famous-Calle-de-la-Cava-Baja and met at 9pm:

At 9 it wasn't crowded, but at about 10pm the bar got super crowded (good thing we had a table!).

We had four tapas dishes:
  1. ensalada (salad) - with tomato, oregano, and goat cheese. Not your typical Italian salad, since the goat cheese was super filling!
  2. calamares (calamari) - wrapped in bacon, fried, mixed with squid ink. The waiter placed the plate of calamari in front of us, cut it up, and mixed the ink in with it. The calamari were a faint orange color before he mixed the ink in, after which they were covered in a layer of blue-black sauce. 
  3. Arroz cremoso (creamy rice) - rice in a creamy sauce, mixed with duck foie and a poached egg. The waiter (after letting Evelin take a spoon without the foie) mixed in the foie and poached egg to make a rich and creamy portion of rice (pictured in the middle of the table below). 
  4. rabo de toro (ox tail) - the most tender meat you've ever had, doused in a creamy sauce and mashed potatoes. No bone!
And a bottle of wine, vino roija of which I don't remember the name other than it was from Enólogo

And all of us were super happy and satisfied that the entire meal (and wine) had cost us 6 euros each, thanks to the subsidy from the class council!
(photo credit to the waiter, thanks Sophie!)
In order, left to right: Sophie, Cristina, Lucas, Carlos, Michele, Evelin

A note about the Calle Cava Baja and tapas on this street. This street is famous in tourist guide books as being a street only filled with dive bars, tapas bars, taverns, and the like. Standing outside of the Casa Lucas for a few minutes waiting for my companions I observed the clientele along this street. It was all tourists - I didn't even hear any Spanish, while I heard English with all brands of accents (American, Scottish, Irish, British), French, and German. I realized that this street was made purely for the tourists - it was too pricey for the depression-hit madrileños - and that it wasn't an "authentic" tapas experience when every two seconds on the street you hear someone saying "is this the street with all the tahpahs?" (The word tapas is actually pronounced "ta-pas", somewhere between rhyming with "hummus" and "uppers").

Regardless of the modernity of the choice of tapas and the touristy-ness of the street, the food was yummy, the wine was flavorful, and the company was good, so we all had a great time!

Monday, June 18, 2012

bouldering in Madrid

For today's brand of fun, I decided it was time for a different adventure than the ones I've been having so far. I decided that I wanted to go climbing. Now granted, I'm not a good climber, and talking to a belayer in Spanish might not be the safest thing ever, so really what I wanted to do is go bouldering. 

The reasoning was that every climbing gym has some bouldering, so I did some searching online only to find this website: that listed very few climbing gyms in Madrid, only one of which was easily accessible by the metro (and therefore my monthly metro pass), so I decided to check it out today after work.

Getting to Bulderking required me taking the Circular line of the metro that I'd never taken before, only to end up in a much poorer neighborhood of Madrid, very clearly not touristy, very clearly filled with local madrileños

View Larger Map

As you can see, to get there I basically had to cross the entire city. It's alright - I read my book on the metro. Getting out of the subway, my map not reaching that far into the south of the city, I was recalling from what I had seen on Google Maps for guidance. The place's website says this is what to look for: 

Don't know about you, but looks a bit sketchy to me. You have to ring the doorbell all the way on the right through a glass shield for someone inside to ring the buzzer and let you in.

The place is super chill - all bouldering, over every wall and ceiling. Plenty of overhangs (which I definitely don't have the strength to do quite yet). The total size is about three times the size of the MIT bouldering wall. There is chalk, a small collection of shoes, some weights/machines, and some space for stretching. When I got there at 19:30 there was a class going on, and the owner was nice enough to explain to me the fact that an entrance costs 6 euros, but if you get a bonus pass of 10 entrances, he'll charge you 45 euros, which makes 4.5 euros for an entrance. He also said to call to see if they were open, since it is just him working the gym, and that he's not open Fridays. 

There aren't that many placed routes, and people just do what they want to construct their own routes. I thought this would be easier, but I found myself making up problems that were both fun and challenging for me. All in all, I love bouldering.

I think I'll try to go at least once a week, since I feel like I need some arm strength. After an hour of climbing, my fingers and forearms hurt; clearly I need to practice more. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

apartment potluck

Today the apartment had it's monthly potluck. I decided to stick around rather than taking a trip to Toledo, since this qualifies as hanging out with locals and chatting in Spanish =). Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures, but the food was yummy. And I learned some new cooking/food-related words in Spanish!

  • Lillian made a salad with lettuce (lechuga), celery (apio), apples (manzana), walnuts, and lime juice
  • Fabian made patacones - latke-like things from plantains (plátanos), garlic (ajo), and salt, fried just like latkes are fried. He also made the most amazing guacamole I've ever had - he put a ton of fresh-squeezed lime in it (and apparently Colombians mix up limes and lemons in Spanish...), in addition to leaving the avocado pit in the guacamole bowl to prevent the guacamole from turning black. He also made a red tomato-based sauce to eat with his patacones that reminded me of the red saucy stuff that you get when you add too much tomatoes to stir fry.
  • Helena made a traditional Catalunyan torta (cake) that was very fluffy and rich, reminding me of the consistency of flan
  • Stefany made corn-flour tortilla buns from scratch and fried chicken pieces.
  • I made salat olivee, known in the rest of the world as Russian salad - a salad from boiled potatoes, boiled carrots, canned peas, pickles, and egg whites, all mixed with mayonnaise. I made this because I couldn't find a Russian store to buy borscht in to make cold borscht...
We hung out, had food, and had a generally good time. I'm glad I stayed around the apartment this weekend!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

essential spanish soccer vocabulary

When watching a game of fútbol (soccer) with Spaniards, don't sound silly. Know some basic vocabulary:

team equipo
player  judagor
game  partido 
field  campo
half  mitad
offsides  fuera de juego or offside
goal (the point)  gol
goal (the net)  portería
goalie  portero
foul  falta
corner kick  corner

watching soccer with the locals

So far Spain has played twice in the Euro Cup - once against Italy and once against Ireland. For the first game against Italy, Josh and I went to
on the Cava Baja (a street in the La Latina section of Madrid known for it's dive bars). We picked this place because it had:

  1. Space
  2. Relatively not-pricey tinto de verano
  3. Spanish soccer fans wearing jerseys
and it was an experience.  
Every time the Spaniards came close to a goal, the whole bar held it's breath. 
And when the teams were playing it just felt like I was part of a national effort. 
Spain tied Italy 1-1. 

Watching the game at home was a different experience. Stephany and Fabian were eating dinner, but Fabian was getting more drunk with each consecutive beer (you can buy 1.5 L of Mahou for 1 euro in the supermarket). 

Here, with every goal, the entire apartment building erupted in a cheer! Looking out the window and walking down the street you can hear cries of "Yaaaa España!!!!" and it feels magical, wonderful. Like you're part of the national soccer pride. 

Spain beat Ireland 4-0, and is now the leader of their Group in the Eurocup.