Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bull fighters wear pink floral socks

My first impression of Madrid was the beautiful buildings; everything seemed so crisp, clean and original. In Milan, the older buildings are aged and discoloured; Madrid looked as though they just had a town working bee with high pressure hoses galore. While Madrid is endowed with a modern infrastructure, it has preserved the look and feel of many of its historic neighbourhoods and streets.

My second impression lay strictly on the shoulders of the buskars. They spread from bridges to alleyways and were littered in Piazza Mayor. I think you can tell a lot about a city by their buskars; with that in mind, Madrid is extremely entertaining, interactive, proud of their heritage, and they like to play statues. We saw toothless accordian players, Flamenco dancers, Rave Party Glitter Goats, Bull fighters in pink floral socks, a spiderman, Mickey, Winnie and Sponge Bob, as well as a lot of people painted one colour and getting paid to stand extremely still.

I must admit that I presumed my first impressions of Madrid would involve the influence of the bull fighting, soccer, flamenco dancers and tapas.... not an overweight smoking spiderman! Don't get me wrong, Madrid left a great impression on me, it is just not the ideal final image to drift me off to sleep at night. (I am purely doubting his super powers, not his entertainment value.)

Royal Palace of Madrid was well worth the visit to witness its ambience. Statues aligning, perfectly manicured garden, and the perfect backdrop for our daughter to explore the playground on offer.

The Buen Retiro park, founded in 1631, was another example of Madrids pride in its city and surroundings. Prestine gardens, beautiful for exploring with small lakes, large statues and a 'Crystal Palace', (which in hindsight just looked like a really big empty glass avery or greenhouse). The weather was cold enough for the top of the smaller ponds and the water fountains to ice over, (best not to test that with a nice pair of leather shoes). We even managed to witness a cleaner in a water fountain (Plaza de Espana) with a shovel breaking ice to make his way to clear rubbish, rolling cans across the frozen shelf. Bbbbbrrrrrr.

Madrid hosts the largest Plaza de Toros (bullring) in Spain, Las Ventas, established in 1929. Las Ventas is considered by many to be the world centre of bullfighting and has a seating capacity of almost 25,000. Madrid's bullfighting season begins in March and ends in October, so we visited knowing we would not witness any action, which I was admittedly happy about, (I only recently discovered what happens to the bull at the end of a chase... no he does not go to a farm to play with other happy carefree bulls!) Las Ventas also hosts music concerts and other events outside of the bullfighting season, this week the circus had come to town.

We ventured to the Rasto Markets, (held every Sunday), to be greeted by hundreds of small stands selling new and second hand articles, handicrafts, paintings, antiques, fabrics, books, junk; practically everything including the kitchen sink. Isn't it funny how most market items tend to be universal? Hippy table runners with bells on the end, screen printed "I love ..." t-shirts, 'genuine' leather bags (not 100% convinced). There were definitely some treasures to be sourced, such as old antiques, gas masks, oh, and don't forget the horns...
As a holiday, Madrid was a success. My daughter got a the requested unicorn cake for her 3rd birthday, and I got to reacquaint myself with a good friend. Madrid has jumped to my top 3 in worldly destinations. Why was I so impressed? There is just a nice feeling. There are many beggars in the streets jingling their coffee cup at you in the hope of donation, but this is not any more prevelant than any other European country we have visited. Madrid has a nice balance of old and new. It is modernised with great shopping and food, but it still holds great respect for its history of food, wine, flamenco and bullfighting. Even though the man at customs stole my wine, two tubes of vegemite and threatened to confiscate my paw paw cream, I still arrived home thinking about our next trip to Spain. You can not dampen my spirits because 'the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plane'.... although, next time, I think we will drive!

IF Interesting Fact

Madrid enjoys more cloudless days than almost any other city in Europe, and we managed an average high of 0 degrees. (Information boards said "+0 degrees", see cup half full, what happy and optimistic place!)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tapas on tap

For the foodies among us, Madrid’s tapas are a must-try. There is some interesting history attached to them, dating back to the 13th century. Stagecoach drivers would stop off at a tavern to take a break with a glass of wine after completing another long and often dangerous leg of their journey. After many such stops, they would get so drunk and eventually become such a menace to other travelers, that the government actually passed a law forcing them to eat something along with their drink. This snack would usually be a piece of bread and ham placed on top of their glass. These tapas (tops or lids) have now evolved into a delicious edible tradition that can be enjoyed all over the world. (Let's face it, Tapas Bars and Sushi Stops can be found most places.)

We found a great food market that called us for tapas and drinks each day. A sangria or cold beer seemed to be the perfect accompanyment, (we saved the Rioja wine for evenings). Instant tapas; tapas on tap, could I ask for anything more?!

Some Spanish food we tried:

  • Olives with a filling of red bell pepper, cheese or ham.
  • Banderillas, (or pinchos de encurtidos), a cold tapa made out of small food items pickled in vinegar and skewered together. They are also known as gildas or piparras and consist of pickled items, like olives, baby onions, baby cucumbers, chillis (guindilla) with pieces of pepper and other vegetables.

  • Calamares or rabas; rings of battered squid.

  • Chorizo spicy sausage.

  • Croquettes served as a tapa.
  • Empanadas or empanadillas large or small turnovers filled with meats and vegetables.

  • Pulpo; octopus served in small chunks in the oil in which it was cooked.

  • Tortilla; a type of omelet containing fried chunks of potatoes and some onion.

  • Jamón serrano (cured ham)

  • Paella (saffron rice)

  • Churro; fried-dough pastry-based snacks

I would like to officially thank all of the stagecoach drivers out there; your need to indulge has resulted in the birth of my favourite food. I am even considering screen printing a " I heart Tapas" t-shirt.

I managed to restrain myself as far as the sweets were concerned, (to be totally honest, I just couldn't possibly fit anything else in), but I am pretty sure that I put on a couple of kilos just seeing the desserts.

IF Interesting Fact

Gazpacho (cold tomato soup) is generally only served during the summer months, even if it remains on the menu all year long.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plane

Have you ever had one of those days? A day that you can bet that the public toilet will be out of paper, or the bird will pick you out of the crowd to release itself. This was a great day; but it was definitely one of 'those' days.

To celebrate our daughters 3rd birthday we planned a holiday to Spain to meet a friend, (any excuse for some more travel really). We allowed an hour to get to the airport, which would of been plenty of time, had I put the right airport into the GPS. You could cut the tension in the air of the car with a knife as we counted down the minutes from check in time to GPS arrival time, we lost a minute here, gained a minute there, and felt like we were in an episode of The Amazing Race. We agreed to park in the first available car space we could find, (surely better to pay for expensive parking as apposed to purchasing new plane tickets). Looking, looking, and parked 500 meters away! We could just see the airport in the distance like a mirage. Out of car, set up pram, kids scarves and hats on, kids in pram, back pack on, birthday presents bag over shoulder, handbag, toiletries bag, I'm running, "Lock the car!" yelled over my shoulder, husband takes up the rear pulling large bag and daughters pretty pink butterfly bag. We run 100meters and spot a transit bus, "Bus, bus!" I hear from behind. Open boot of van, large bag in, pink bag in, toiletries bag in, present bag in, back pack in, kids out of pram, "Off the road!", take pram apart, pram in, door locked, "ahem ahem", door still locked, "ahem ahem", climb in the van, quick head count, all good. Drive 200meters. End of line. Time to get out and start all over again. (Not to sure if we saved any time here?) So with daughter surfing the front of the pram and son under my arm hanging on for dear life, I take of like a football player wanting to score. Hubby is behind looking like he is about to go kung-fu on our luggage, but manages to make up some distance once his 5 items are balanced correctly.

One minute late for check in, the lovely lady accepts our tickets and we place our bag and pram at an external door. We rush to our gate, (which is obviously the one furtherest away), and join the end of the remaining queue that is boarding the plane. This is where we are told that our carry on luggage of 5 bags is to be condensed to 3. "Infants don't count, everyone else has only one piece of carry on Madam." (Did you know that a small handbag is carry on luggage?) So now would be the perfect time for our daughter to unpack her bag and play with some toys, "Can I open my presents now?" I take a deep breath and unpack and repack bags as fast as possible, trying to keep out of the corridor, so the last 2 remaining passengers with two carry on bags each may pass through!

So, yes, we are now officially those people. The last ones onto the plane hoping to get sympathetic looks, instead receiving glares of detest. I think we held the plane up one minute. I just wanted to sink into my seat. If I could find one. With six free rows at the front and four free rows at the back, we are still unable to take a seat. Ushered to the back to be ushered back to the front again, worried that the plane was going to be too top heavey? I presumed that all would be fine as long as the pointy end of the plane was pointing forward, but then I am no pilot. So to anger more patrons, others are moved so I can sit with my daughter, as my husband takes the rear of the plane with our son on his lap. This was going to be a long flight.

After ten minutes in the air, the stewardess informs me of some great news, in Spanish, a language that I do not comprehend. I tell her I do not understand, so she speaks again, slower and louder, (this obviously does not help my comprehension, it just makes me feel, quite frankly, a little special). So I nod, smile and thank her. My husband eventually flags me down, and I realise I am now able to join him in the back so we can all sit together. Reunited; we can regroup and start our holiday. The morning can only get better. Right?

My husband makes his way to our carry on luggage in the front of the plane to search for a nappy for our son that has just managed to pee through his nappy and on to both of us. He is stuck for ten minutes behind the food trolley, so I hold my son above me by the waist to avoid more spillage, (and make the most of an arm weights session). I decide to take a little toilet brake, and a moment to breath, when I find a 5 pence coin on the floor. Opting to combine two of the dirtiest things, (money and toilet floors), I decide it is a sign, pick up the money smiling and saying to myself "Find a penny, pick it up, all day long you'll have good luck!" I practically skip back to my seat and inform my husband of our new fortune of luck. Not quite a winning lottery ticket, but it was enough for me to boost some positive thinking.

I rest back into my seat, take the cup of energy drink my husband has poured me. We hit turbulance; I now have drink up my nose and down my clothes. The landing was not exactly smooth either and we gripped onto each other as Captain Kangaroo bounced us to the terminal. The morning can only get better. Right?

"Thank you for flying with us today. We hope you enjoyed giving us the business, as much as we enjoyed taking you for a ride!"

IF Important Fact
There is more than one airport in Milan.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Back it up Nonna

A queue is supposed to be a line of people waiting for something. Lining up. What can I say, Italians don't!

Supermarkets, clothes stores, restaurants, road traffic. It appears that the motto is "Me first", and there is no time to wait your turn. Nonna's are the worst offenders. They casually step in front of you to be closer to the cash register, their trick is to not make eye contact, and apparently, this makes them invisible.

If you arrive someplace you should ask who is the last in line (chi è l'ultimo?) and then you will know that you are after the person that responds. Italians rule, if you do not ask this question just pop into the largest gap between people that you see.

Beware of the sweet looking Nonna. At the shop this morning, a definite line had been established. Nonna stands very close behind me, edging in front of the lady who was clearly next in queue, and she very casually leans into me and starts unpacking her groceries onto the bench. Two things bother me; firstly, she ignores the lady who says "I was here first", twice, (pretty sure this is what she said as there was a 'sono' and 'primo' in there somewhere, and a lot of 'how rude' sighing), and secondly, I had not even started to unpack my groceries yet! Think you can make it all better by squeezing my sons cheeks? Hands off Nonna! Did not know what to say, thank goodness an eye roll is universal.

IF Interesting Fact

December 31, 2000 - Parishioners waiting in line to receive the Eucharist are attacked by men wielding machetes and a blow torch in the Roman Catholic cathedral in St. Lucia; at least two are killed and another dozen wounded. (source: The Britannica Archive). This is horrible, yes, but not likely to happen at the suprmarket. So wait in line...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Breathing smoke? I'm no dragon!

On our first trip to Italy in 2009, we had heard about a crypt in Rome that was decorated with the bones of thousands of dead Cappuchin monks. It sounded intriguing, and warranted a visit, and I’m so glad we eventually found this crypt – the Cappuchin Crypt in Rome was one of my husbands favorite places in the city. So when I stumbled across information of a bone church in Milan, it was quick to make our list of things to see locally.

La Chiesa San Bernardino alle Ossa, or the Church of St. Bernardino of the Bones, is just a couple minutes walk from the Milan Duomo and found in a humble looking church. We wandered around the small piazza and the outskirts of the church, 'discussing maturely' where to find the entrance to the crypt. After pushing on several locked heavy wooden doors, we entered the church, and went right toward a small chapel to see a narrow set of swinging doors on the left side with a sign pointing to the “Ossario.” Mass was is progress in the main church so we tried to usher children into the ossario as quickly and stealth-like as possible. No awards for our covertness; my direction of "We need to be quiet", was quickly followed by screaming of "What'd you say mummy, mummy, what did you say, mummy, mummy, what did you say to me....mummy!" Needless to say we will not be sneaking into any movies anytime soon.

I pushed open the swinging doors and we walked, (some of us ran), down a dimly lit hallway. The atmosphere seemed eerie, I guess to be expected when you are going to look at old body parts. I had warned my daughter that we were going to see bone art, in preparation not to scare her, and to avoid answering any kiddy questions I was unprepared for, (such as "Mummy, why are the bones on the outside of their body?", or "Can we get some bones to do art?", for goodness sake I'm even dreading the day of, "Why don't planes have to flap their wings to fly?") Another small doorway is found at the end of the hall and it opened into a chilly one-room chapel, its walls almost entirely lined with cages holding thousands and thousands of bones. I wonder if this was the bone art my daughter was expecting?

There was a lady sitting alone in the chapel when we entered and a couple towards the back sitting quietly filming on their phone. I wanted to take pictures, and I had not seen any signs indicating I could not, but I also did not want to be disrespectful of someone who was actually praying /reflecting / sleeping in the chapel. (The Cappuchin Monks Church in Rome strongly enforced no photos, and people were even escorted out when seen doing so.) Not wanting to be thrown from the church by an Altar Boy Bouncer, I waited until it was just the couple remaining before I reached for my camera. I am not one to betray, but that man filmed first, I could always blame his influence?

The chapel itself is small, but the room itself is quite tall. This ossuary had almost every wall reaching from floor to ceiling with stacks of skulls as well as arm and leg bones. The walls between the cases (which were all behind metal grating) had some bits of decoration that included bones, but for the most part it seemed like a storage for missing bones rather than the display of bone artwork that I had expected. St Bernardino was definitely worth the visit, unfortunately I found the bone display a little plain compared to what I had seen previously in Rome.

The fresco on the rounded ceiling of the chapel was particularly striking and unlike any I had seen before– there were pieces of fresco which were layered in the corners, giving it more of a 3D effect. Wanted to lay down a rug and spend sometime watching, just as you would the clouds on a picnic, (but I could imagine this would of been seen as highly inappropriate).

As we entered the chilly chapel, my children stripped off their jackets and started an inappropriate game of catch and chase, my husband looked apologetically at the others in our company and tried to explore the room, and I was concerned with something else all together. Why did it look like I was breathing smoke, I'm not a dragon? It felt twice as cold inside than outside, and it was about 4 degrees outside. Although the room did have an eerie feel about it, (there was feeling of a crowded room, with very few people), it was beautiful, and to me, and it felt more like a place of art than a place for worship.

The ossuary at San Bernardino alle Ossa came into being because a hospital and cemetery were built next door (at an adjacent church, the Basilica of St. Stephen) in 1145. When the cemetery became full, a room was built to hold the bones in 1210 (the present-day ossuary chapel). Then in 1269 they built the rest of the church. The multi-layered fresco on the ceiling of the chapel was painted in 1695 by Sebastiano Ricci.

IF Important Fact - Expect songs to be stuck in your head for the next few hours...

"The Foot Bone was Connected To The Leg Bone,
the Leg Bone was Connected To The Knee Bone,

the Knee Bone was Connected To The Thigh Bone,

the Thigh Bone was Connected To The Back Bone,

the Back Bone was Connected To The Neck Bone,

the Neck Bone was Connected To The Head Bone,
oh, Hear The Word Of The Creepy Crypt!"

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Comedy and Comprehension

My new years resolution is to commit myself to learning the Italian language. I like to run with themes each year, it seems more practical and realistic than telling myself I will loose weight quickly, drink no wine during the week or break some sort of World Record. It got me thinking when my husband asked last night what this years theme was. Last year was '2010 - Year of Culture and Comedy'. I told him that I hadn't finished being funny yet, (pretty sure he mumbled something like "I have") then I corrected myself by saying with 'finding things funny, not being funny'. So holding onto the comedy, he suggested I replaced the culture with another C word. I have decided comprehension would be appropriate. Comprehension for myself of others, and for others of me. '2011 - Year of Comedy and Comprehension', (and perhaps Confusion).

It is important to know that relative to other European countries, the level of English knowledge in Italy is very low. In more northern European countries, it seems like so many people speak at least a bit of English, in Italy, these people will tend to be fewer and further in between. It may be less evident in the popular tourist areas, but you will still be confronted with it. Therefore, my procrastination is over, I must get the basics of Italian communication.

Last week we were in an Asian restaurant, and a lady who was dining alone was placed at our connecting table. After a few pleasant smiles, hubby struck up conversation. After explaining our background a little, our lovely new friend was so amazed that I came from Australia because my English was so good. I accepted the complement, not entirely sure of its origin. After repeated amazement from her, I realised that she did not realise that English was the spoken language of my home country. What was? Australian? Sentences of pure slang? "G'Day. Been up since sparrows fart and am knackered. Came with ankle biters for some ace tucker, we'll bog into the vedgies and she'll be apples. Scuse the ear bashing." (Translation for non-Australians: "Hello. Woke up early and am exhausted. Came with children for some good food, we will eat vegetables and feel better. Sorry for talking so much.") This ladies confusion just confirmed how far away Australia is from Italy, and perhaps how little they know about Australia.

This morning as I was walking through our foyer the door man and maintenance man were having a heated conversation. Arms were flapping like a bird, hand gestures being used, and voices were raised; I could not tell if they were arguing or just being passionate. Walking straight into the line of conversation I was asked (in broken English) to help prove a point. "In Australia, do we know any Italian artists?" This was followed by a quick list of names, that as far as I was concerned could of been a list of car parts or names of medications. It was all foreign to me, Italians speak faster with excitement. So my response was "no, apart from the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo." I had just given victory to the maintenance man. "But you know Abba? Momma Mia?" I reply yes, and now apparently victory goes to the door man. I leave confused as to what sort of artist we are talking about, and comment over my shoulder that Abba sing in English. Were they claiming Abba as their own because they just had a season of Momma Mia the Musical in Milan?

Italy uses English words in songs, billboards, and slogans everywhere; yet the majority of the population do not speak the English language. The lovely staff at the gym I attend speak very little English, although they sing along happily to the English songs pumping out of the music speakers. Do they even know what they are saying? Perhaps listening to Italian music will fast track my language learning.

So this, the year of 'Comedy and Comprehension', I vow to learn at least fifty new words a week, and to understand the Italian secret language of hand gestures.

IF Important Fact - Packaging on products often have instructions in Italian, French, German, oh and Great Brittan. I think that is what they are calling the English language here.

Another IF - If you tell a man that you "Vorrei sparare una..." and point to a CD player, you are actually telling him, "I want to shoot it" not "I want to buy it". No wonder the customer service was bad. New word learned. New lessoned learnt don't yell 'sparare' in the street.