14 January 2015

Dispatches from Spain 6

by Rich Gilbert

[The continuing adventure of Rich and Sallie in Madrid, Spain, proceeds below.  Check back for installments 1 & 2 (30 November 2014), 3 & 4 (10 December 2014), and 5 (20 December 2014) to catch up with the story.]

Visiting DC – Madrid at 3 months

Madrid – January 10, 2015
Dear friends and family,

“Un otra buen día en Madrid” – another good day in Madrid.  It has been our mantra for weeks.  The weather has been cold, below freezing at night, maybe into the 50’s during the day, but bright sun every day.  Some have said this is mild winter for Madrid; if so, let’s hope it lasts.

We hope your holidays were happy ones. Sallie’s oldest son, David, his wife Heidi, and granddaughter Emily were here for a couple of weeks. We spent the holidays in Madrid, but got in some travelling also. But first . . .

Visiting D.C.

I will be in Washington from Thursday, January 15, 2015, through Tuesday, February 3, for a pair of oral arguments in the United States Court of Appeals. I hope to see many of you while I am in town. I will definitely be in Tunnicliff’s Tavern, our old Capitol Hill hangout, on Friday night, 1/17/15, with dinner later at our favorite Mexican restaurant, and probably Friday, 1/30/15, as well. Other plans are still up in the air. (I probably will watch the Super Bowl, even if Real Madrid is not playing.)  I have a hotel room for each weekend before the oral arguments, so I can spread the papers out, and friends with guest rooms have got me covered for the interim, which I greatly appreciate.  Back to Spain . . .

Holidays in Madrid

Christmas here is, of course, a big deal, like every Western country, but the actual celebration of the day tends to be quiet and spent at home. Most of the shops and restaurants which are open on the day, close by the end of the afternoon, and many do not open at all.  Our favorite bar was closed, but it is attached to a nice restaurant which was open for the afternoon meal. They were completely booked, but they agreed to prepare a roasted sucking pig for us to take home, so we had a big dinner at home.

The next day, December 26, is Boxing Day in Britain, and one of my friends with whom I have reconnected is from Bermuda and married to a Spaniard.  They have an annual Boxing Day party at their ranch about 40 miles outside the city. They invited Sallie and me and her family. It was a blast, with a very diverse group of friends. We have connected with some new folks and will likely get together with them soon. Oddly, I spent as much time speaking in German as Spanish, although many guests and the family all spoke English.

On New Year’s Eve, the tradition is to quickly consume 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight. Many folks try to do so down at the Puerta del Sol, the heart of Madrid.  Think Times Square.  We tried to go down, but like Times Square, we could not get within several blocks, so we saw in the new year in the street. Oddly, however, a lot of bars began to close shortly after midnight, so we ended going back home by 1:00.  New Year’s day is quiet like Christmas, but without the Rose Bowl Parade or any football games. The Spanish League does not play over the holidays.  I gather the English Premier League does, but I could not get away to watch them.

Madrid differs from the US is one important way.  The holidays are not over on New Year’s Day.  Instead a really big holiday is on January 6, the Day of the Three Kings, which celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. This is the day when children get most of their presents. The city has a really big parade on the night before – think a combination of the Rose Bowl Parade and Mardi Gras parade.  They throw candy from the floats.  Sallie was feeling a little under the weather and her family had left that day, so we did not go down to watch. However, we did get to see the much smaller parade two days earlier in our local barrio, which was, frankly, a lot more fun. Interestingly, even our “big” supermarket was closed on Three Kings Day, when they were open part of the day on Christmas and New Year’s. Now everything is back to normal.  I made it back to the gym and Sallie made it to her Spanish class.

Traveling In Spain

We took a couple of trips while Sallie’s family was here. We took a two day trip, with a rental car, to Segovia, Avila, and Salamanca.  We were avoiding the toll roads and ended up driving over a beautiful mountain pass into Segovia, which I would recommend. The three cities all date back over a thousand years. Segovia had the most impressive castle and also has a huge preserved Roman aqueduct.  Avila has the best preserved city walls. Salamanca has the prettiest Plaza Mayor or city square. It is home to an ancient university of renown. It also has the most interesting cathedral, which is actually two cathedrals joined like Siamese twins, one Romanesque (12th Century) and one built between the 1500’s and 1700’s and thus a combination of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance.

Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, we took a four day trip to Barcelona. Although I had been to Barcelona before, at Sallie’s insistence this trip was different. First of all, through airbnb, we stayed in an apartment in the old city. With its narrow winding streets, it took us a few days to get around just in our neighborhood, but it was fascinating. We went to the Picasso museum; as my artist friends will tell you, I do not really understand modern art and I joke that Picasso kind of left me at the turn of the last century, but when you see his earlier works, portraits, landscapes, etc., you realize what a gifted artist he was.  Then we went to the Barcelona History Museum. Barcelona is much older than Madrid; it was a major city during the Roman occupation of Spain. The museum is built over some ancient Roman ruins and to its credit, the architects found a way to display the ruins, by digging under the museum and constructing a labyrinth below through which you can walk on several levels. It was pretty remarkable looking at ruins going back thousands of years.

The last full day was Gaudi day.  We looked at some his buildings downtown with their fanciful architecture and design elements, but did not go inside. Then we made our way to Park Guell, the large park which he designed.  Finally, we walked down to Sagrada Familia, the cathedral which he started.  A lot of people do not realize that the building of the cathedral did not stop with Gaudi’s death.  It is still being carried out, with an expected finishing date in 2016. Inside the cathedral was not at all what I expected after seeing the much older cathedrals on our earlier trip. Gaudi and subsequent architects made strong use of light and space.  The walls down the length of the cathedral, are being built with lots of stained glass.  The walls are on the east and west sides, so the sun comes in.  Sallie got tickets online before we went, so the wait was short. We entered in the late afternoon and the setting sun through the primarily yellow, orange and red stained glass was spectacular. (The eastern wall is mostly green and blue, probably a whole different effect in the morning.) You can also take a tour of some of the towers which give a view of the city and of the ongoing construction.

I have explained to some people that Barcelona is more of a world city, while Madrid is the quintessential modern Spanish city. We found that to be true with tourists from all over the world everywhere we went in Barcelona.  We are still happy in Madrid, but I would give Barcelona plenty of time were I visiting Spain.

Spanish Politics

Speaking of Barcelona, the Cataluña independence story keeps going.  Lots of Catalan flags hanging from balconies throughout Barcelona.  The Catalan high court has recently approved charges against Artur Mas, the president of Cataluña, his vice-president and the secretary of Education for “disobedience” by having held the vote on November 9, 2014, despite being ordered to suspend it by the Spanish Constitutional Court. Meanwhile, Mas is having trouble getting some of the other Catalan independence party to go along with his idea of holding elections with one slate, composed of members from each of those parties, who will support independence. The idea is that if they get an absolute majority, that will be the effective equivalent of a referendum.

I recently had lunch with a respected Spanish attorney who explained some things about the Spanish criminal justice system.  There are official prosecutors, of course, but one level of Spanish judges are actually investigators, like our grand jury.  They can entertain charges from the official prosecutors, but also from groups who want to press charges.  There are such groups in Spain who are like watchdogs.  Imagine the ACLU being able to ask a judge to indict someone. If the judge finds these allegations have merit, he or she can refer the case to trial. Trial is not before the investigating judge. Spain has a modified jury system, in large part thanks to the work over many years of the attorney with whom I had lunch.

This independence of the investigating judge explains the case of the Infanta, the sister to the King, who is charged with money laundering in a case involving her husband.  The official prosecutor recommended that she pay a huge civil fine, sort of restitution, but did not seek criminal charges.  The investigating judge overruled him based on the complaints by these citizen groups, and she is currently facing a trial. (My attorney friend thinks that eventually those charges will be dismissed, but not right away.)

Investigating judges are very much in the news because the corruption stories just keep coming.  The ruling party tried to limit the amount of time that a judge can spend on investigating a case, sort of like a speedy trial limit, but the courts have said that is unconstitutional, pointing out, correctly, the complexity of some of these corruption schemes.  The ruling party is trying to run on the improving economic climate in Spain, while the main opponents, the Socialists, are going to run on an anti-corruption platform.  Al the parties have been tainted somewhat, but the ruling party is getting buffeted the most.  The big gainers are Podemos [which translates as “We can,” as Rich noted in the last report], the rising populist party, who would get the largest number of votes if the elections were today.  It seems likely that the Socialists and Podemos, which has a leftist bent, may form the next government, but that will be after we are gone, unless elections are called early.

Spain does not really have a large anti-immigrant, anti-Europe party like France, Germany, and other northern countries, but the terrorist attacks in Paris are front page news here as well as the rest of the continent.  We shall see.

Spanish Football

The police finished their investigation of the riot that resulted in the death of a football fan from A Coruna a month ago with some thirty arrests, and violence in football seems to have receded from the sports pages.  I hope that is because the new measures are working.  We will see.

Meanwhile Real Madrid and Barcelona both lost league matches two weeks ago, but still lead the league.  Spain also has a tournament open to all the clubs in Spain, called the Copa del Reyes, (the Kings Cup), much like the U S Open Cup in the United States. Of course, in the end the big clubs are the ones left standing. The clubs play a home and away series. I saw Real Madrid tied by a third division club, but Real won on a combined score from both matches.  Real and Atletico Madrid played each other last weekend and Atletico won at their stadium, setting up a pressure game in a few weeks. Meanwhile at Barcelona, there is apparently a rift between the coach and Leo Messi, the team’s best player (one of the best in the world actually). This is like the Coach Gruden and RG III rift with the Washington football club – fills up the sports page with predictions of catastrophe, until the team wins.  Barcelona won its Cup match 5 to 0, so everybody is happy - until the next time.  Barcelona and Real Madrid have their league rematch in March; it is my on calendar.

Hope everything is well with you all, and hope to see at least some of you soon.


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