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21 Oct

I did a hike recently with a friend from Puerto de Navacerrada to Cercedilla in the mountains just north of Madrid – it was a lovely autumn day and wonderful to be outside, away from the city.

My natural history lessons for the day?  Rose hips and autumn crocus.

  • Rose hips – In Spain, rose hips are called (colloquially) “tapaculos“.  The “tapa” refers to covering or a lid, and “culo” refers to…your backside!  This nickname comes from the fact that the tiny hairs in the rose hips can cause stomach irritation and distress…and you get the point.  When you eat tapaculos, make sure to remove the seeds and hairs!!!

Tapaculos or rose hips – very tasty, but make sure to remove the seeds and hairs unless you are conducting an experiment to find out why the Spaniards call them “tapaculos”.

  • Autumn crocus – The famous paella ingredient, saffron, comes from the dried stigma of the Crocus sativus flower that blooms in the fall.  On my hike, I saw a number of autumn-blooming crocus that although were not THE saffron crocus, were lovely in their own diminutive, fragile and almost hidden beauty.

An autumn-blooming crocus, similar to the famous saffron-producing Crocus sativus.


A Spanish superstition you won’t believe

27 Sep

I’ve come across some superstitions in Spain similar to those I grew up with – for example, knocking on wood for good luck (tocar madera) to avoid having bad luck and finding a four-leaf clover (encontrarse un trébol de cuatro hojas) for good luck.

Imagine my surprise when during Spanish class yesterday I learned that stepping in excrement brings good luck.  

I nearly fell off the chair – I must be misunderstanding…but no!  I suspect that whoever came up with this mistakenly thought the “good luck” was any improvement that came after the serious bad luck of landing in a pile of disgustingness.

I think I finally understand why I see piles of it on the street, although in some fairness, there are doggie bags available on many corners here in Madrid, and I have seen some of my neighbors doing their duty.  Hopefully, people are moving beyond this ridiculous superstition and realize that polluted waterways and diseases carried by bacteria, parasites and viruses that are present in excrement are in no way lucky.


Apparently, the Swedes don’t share this superstition.

At least I had my sunglasses…

20 Mar

I’m in Düsseldorf, on my last leg of a March Tour of Europe.  I left home exactly 2 weeks ago.  The first week had 4 days in Rome and 2 days in Naples, then one night back home in Madrid that turned into two nights.  I’ll pick up the story there.  A week ago Monday after spending a lovely night in my own bed I headed back to the airport for a 1:20pm flight to Copenhagen.  Once onboard the plane we pushed away from the gate right on time.  A minute or so later my week started to unravel.  The captain came on the intercom and announced the front wheel had been damaged during pushback.  The plane was pulled back up to the terminal, and we waited for 1.5 hours.  The captain then announced they were trying to source a replacement wheel and that the repair would take at least 1.5 hours more.  Kindly, the fine folks at SAS invited us off the plane and to enjoy a free meal at a restaurant in the terminal, courtesy of SAS.  Never one to turn down free food I took the stroll over to Terminal 3 where they sorted out the details of giving 165 or so passengers a free meal.

Roughly 4 hours after our intended departure the repairs were complete, and passengers were able to reboard with one small exception.  Due to the delay, one of the flight attendants was now “off duty,” and apparently there is a maximum number of passengers per flight attendant allowed.  That meant they needed 16 passengers to volunteer to wait until Tuesday to fly to Copenhagen.  I quickly volunteered, realizing it would 11pm before I made it to my destination in Malmo.  Around 6pm I headed back home, ready to sleep in my own bed again.

I didn’t get to sleep long that night as my new flight departed at 7am.  Back to the airport I headed just after 6am when the Metro started running and away we went towards a stopover in Munich, more or less, on time.  We reached Munich unscathed and proceeded to sit on the tarmac for a bit.  The captain popped onto the intercom and announced our gate was occupied (by a plane with wheel damage?).  About this time I glanced at my ticket and realized I had only a 45 minute layover in Munich and the minutes were ticking preciously by.  And they ticked, and they ticked, and they ticked, and finally about 10 minutes before my next flight was due to depart we were able to exit the plane.  Not surprisingly, we deplaned at gate 37 and my next gate was gate 7.  Perhaps, surprisingly to some, this meant my next plane was waiting approximately 30 generous wingspans down a very, very, very long terminal.  Running shoes on and in need of a good jog, off I went to find my next plane.  I arrived, the flight attendants didn’t seem surprised, and proceeded down the gangway, and then down the stairs, to a bus.  A bus?  A few more passengers that I recognized from my flight the day before came huffing and puffing down to the bus as well, and I realized, I needn’t have run, as I only had to be as fast as the slowest person off my flight from Madrid.  Recognizing our folly we joked about the situation, and in the course of the conversation I came to learn that my flight the previous day had been completely cancelled.  A bright moment in my trip!  As it seems by volunteering I had simply sped up the inevitable and returned home much sooner than had I tried to fly on to Copenhagen.  My moment of satisfaction lasted just that, moments, as the bus proceeded to drive along the edge of the terminal, back the way I had just run, back the entire 30 gates, underneath the plane I had just left, before curving left onto the tarmac where my new plane happily waited.  In case you got lost, I had waited 30 nervous minutes on a plane on the tarmac, ran the entire length of the terminal and then rode a bus back the entire length of the terminal and boarded a plane waiting on the tarmac!!!

So it was on to Copenhagen now.  It turns out that I had another flight scheduled from Copenhagen that same day up to Stockholm and given the non-direct flight I had no option but to wait in the Copenhagen airport until my afternoon flight to Stockholm.  While I waited, I stopped by the SAS baggage service to check on the whereabouts of my luggage as the day before I had left the airport with my luggage on a plane I presumed was on its way to Copenhagen before me.  The friendly SAS lady informed me that my luggage would be on today’s SAS flight from Madrid, and I could just pick It up here later this afternoon.  Perfect!  Say, what time does flight arrive?  16:10?  Oh, that’s very funny, because my flight to Stockholm departs at 16:05!  So I filled out the paperwork to have my luggage transferred up to Stockholm later in the evening.  Fortunately, or so I thought, I was flying on another SAS flight to Stockholm, so I reasoned this would make the logistics of transferring my luggage easier.

Undeterred, I thoroughly enjoyed my flight to Stockholm.  It was a beautiful evening, and I had trouble telling the hundreds of lakes from the hundreds (or is it thousands?) of Baltic Sea inlets that surround and pass through Stockholm.  Amazing place and I had just arrived!  I was flying with colleagues now as we were headed to a future wind farm site a few hours north of Stockholm.

Approaching Stockholm from the air.

After landing, we made a quick stop by the SAS baggage service to check on my luggage.  It hasn’t checked into Copenhagen yet?  But that flight arrived an hour ago?  Well, we’ll go have dinner in the airport and check back again.  And so we did, very slowly, taking our time at every opportunity.  Around 9pm, with only one flight left to arrive from Copenhagen I checked again, this time with the fourth different SAS person.  She tapped in my special baggage service number, drew a puzzled look, tapped some more, left the room to make a phone call and returned a few minutes later to inform me that my luggage was in fact, still in Madrid!  I don’t know if I can share with you the joy I felt knowing we had just waited 4 hours for that excellent news (that perhaps one of the 3 previous friendly SAS people could have shared with me?) and that I the very next day I would be spending a glorious day outside in a forest, in northern Sweden, north of 60° N, in the winter, without a coat, nor boots, nor socks, nor hat, nor gloves.  But hey, AT LEAST I HAD MY SUNGLASSES!

And so it was, the very next day with two borrowed coats, borrowed socks, and a purchased hat (I really like the hat, so that part didn’t “smart”), I headed off into the forest.

Making our way to various sites.

Our access road.

Boreal forests in this part of the world!

Fortunately, the sun was out (and remember, I had my sunglasses!) so the 35° F temperature wasn’t bad, until I stepped through the crusty knee deep snow into a small stream, in my very non-waterproof shoes.  Ah well, it was worth it to see a little part of this world, and we saw hundreds of moose prints in the snow as we walked to a few of the turbine locations.

Moose tracks!

Actually, we walked quite far that day, because you see, about 100 meters after departing our first stop of the day, our VW SUV high-centered on the center ridge of the road.  By high-centered, I mean we were stuck, in the snow, in the forest, in northern Sweden, north of 60 north, in the winter.  And as we were quite stuck, I headed off to visit a few turbine locations while we awaited rescue courtesy of the rental car service.


It seems that it is not so easy to explain exactly where we were in the forest, in northern Sweden…, especially since we only spoke English (and Italian, and Spanish, but really how helpful could those languages be in Sweden?), and the “rescue” service only spoke Swedish.  A little telephone game through colleagues back in Malmo that spoke both English and Swedish seemed to be getting the rescuers on the right course, although, I’m told at one point they were way up at the top of the nearby ski resort  searching for us near the “big metal mast” that was supposed to indicate our whereabouts.  Roughly 4 hours after getting stuck and having walked to all reasonable turbine locations, and with the sun rapidly setting, I decided that despite the apparent futility, we should at least make an effort to get ourselves unstuck in case our rescuers don’t arrive as expected.  Using the jack and some wood to support the jack, I raised the VW up so that it was no longer high-centered, and by placing a generous supply of sticks under the tires along with a packing of snow so the tires wouldn’t sink back down, it seemed we had made some progress.  In fact, I think I’ll hop in the driver’s seat and see if we have made any headway.  Oh wait, there are our rescuers!  Umm, their vehicle really isn’t any bigger than ours.  In fact, they are going to get stuck just trying to get over to us.  How fine would that be, to have freed ourselves only to be blocked by our “rescuers” on this very narrow one lane road?  Nevertheless, the rescuers hopped out of their not so big vehicle and took a look at the situation.  “Not good” in Swedish is apparently one of the few phrases my colleagues understand.  Indeed!  The second chap seemed less concerned and after slipping and sliding his vehicle back the direction we’d all come, he returned to our situation, hopped into the driver’s seat of our VW and proceeded to drive us right back from whence we’d come.  Rescued!  Rescued?  Didn’t he just drive the vehicle down the road?  Couldn’t we have done that?  Ah, nevermind, at this point, we had another plane to catch, and with luck my luggage would be waiting for me in Copenhagen.

And yes, we DID see two moose alongside the road on the way back to the airport!

Ardillas rojas

19 Jul

We are approximately 5 blocks or so from Madrid’s largest park (not nature preserve – that distinction belongs to the much larger Casa de Campo in the western part of the city). The Parque del Buen Retiro or “El Retiro” is a beautiful 350-acre park, and we visit at least once each day to walk or run the dogs.  We’re able to run between 3-4 miles along the perimeter – the park is hardly homogenous, as there are formal gardens interspersed with more natural areas, fountains and historical buildings.  Some areas forbid dogs off-leash (“No Perros Sueltos”) and some areas have grass that apparently is just there for visitors to gaze upon (“No Pisar El Cesped”), but all in all, there appear to be plenty of areas to relax and enjoy the shade of some very old trees – perhaps some older than the 16th century! Many Madrileños spend time in the park, sleeping, running, walking dogs, and spending time together – it strikes us that this park is heavily used, but also very well maintained and loved.

Map of El Retiro - our current apartment is a few blocks west of the park.

The park is home to ardillas rojas (red squirrels, or Sciurus vulgaris) – I pulled a copyright-free picture from Wiki Commons since I have not been able to get a good picture yet (this one was taken in the winter, obviously):

An ardilla roja (aka "animal of interest #1" per Jordan & Haley); photo by Nicolas Perez.

The squirrels are actually on the IUCN Red List, so they have protection, and there are some conservation concerns due to population declines.  Guiltily, we have had two (minor – no fur was touched!) encounters with the dogs running after squirrels.  The dogs are really not able to holler and squeal like they used to in the states when they treed a squirrel because unlike some of the areas in Austin where we would walk, there are always people around in El Retiro.  For the sake of these sensitive squirrels, we’ll have to start training the dogs to watch and enjoy the squirrels from afar (here’s hoping these dogs can learn new tricks!).  Anyhow, it also seems rude of us to allow the dogs to carry on barking next to the couple making out on the grass 15-feet away (the most popular activity in El Retiro, by the way).

Justin and the pups near a water feature in El Retiro.

Living walls

16 Jul

Our apartment (for another week) is across the street from the botanical gardens and a few blocks from the Prado Museum – very central and very convenient to many things.  One of the more interesting things that we are close to (1 block away, to be exact) is a living wall at the Caixa Forum that is covered with myriad plants – it’s quite beautiful, and every time we are out walking the dogs, we see people taking pictures and examining the wall up close.  Even more interesting, when we visited Madrid two years ago, we also spent some time looking at the wall and visiting an exhibit in the adjacent building that was promoting Madrid as a host for the 2016 Olympics, which it later lost out to Rio de Janeiro. See here for a little more information on the project.

Here is the wall in 2009:

CaixaForum's Living Wall, 2009.

Here is the wall today:

CaixaForum's Living Wall, 2011.

We’re enjoying living near this lovely landmark, but we’ve decided to take another apartment in a quieter part of town that is slightly closer to Justin’s office, so we’ll make our transition next Friday.  Our current apartment has a great location, but there is no A/C, which surprisingly hasn’t been too bad (thank you, Austin, for acclimatizing us), but I’m not confident that the many little heaters will stand for a real winter.  The furnishings are on the shabby side (no sign of chic), and the kitchen is just a little too small (I’m reserving my right to a reasonably-sized, small kitchen now, knowing that we’ll be back on a boat sometime in the future).  This apartment does have character, though, and I’ll explain why tomorrow.

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